Biology labs are built on single-use plastic due to their need for carefully controlled, sterile experiments. Take a simple task like setting up a PCR – you use a plastic tip to pipet a solution from one plastic tube to the next, at each step generating a material that will very soon be discarded. Even scientists who are careful about plastic use and recycling in their personal lives find it difficult to conduct experiments without leaving behind a trail of single-use plastic waste. A recent 2015 study estimated the total amount of plastic waste produced by biology labs world-wide to be 5.5 million tons – approximating 83% of the total amount of recycled plastic in 2012.
Working in a biology lab, it’s difficult for someone to ignore the amount of waste produced in the pursuit of science. But what can be done to make biology labs greener? Here are some common suggestions that may make small but meaningful improvements to a lab’s waste production:
These suggestions are certainly steps in the right direction for individual labs. However, larger coordinated efforts can increase the impact that an individual lab may have on their own. For example, Stanford University has a yearly Lab Swap. During this event, labs offer up equipment and reagents that they no longer use to other labs in the University. In redirecting these unused resources, Stanford estimates that nearly $100,000 is saved in research costs. The Stanford Lab Swap is an example of how resource reallocation can prove both environmentally and financially beneficial.
This concept can be extended beyond this single event in the form of Contract Research Organizations, or CROs. CROs allow labs to outsource assays that may require equipment and resources that they a lab may not already possess. Rather than purchasing those resources themselves, labs may be able to reduce their environmental impact by outsourcing work to CROs that optimized to carry out the specific task.
Outsourcing can avoid duplication, and the associated waste that comes with it.
Even with all of these tools, innovations are needed to tackle the challenge of research waste. Fortunately, a number of biotechs are rising to meet this need, often taking one of three approaches to address this problem: making lab plastic reusable, creating environmentally-friendly “bioplastics,”and finding new ways to degrade existing plastic waste.
Biology research is not unique in its use of single-use plastic, but it may be unique in its ability to address the problem. Biotech solutions such as these will have a dramatic impact on the way we interact with materials in the future. In the meantime, however, all biologists can take simple steps to try to reduce the waste produced by their experiments.