Make biology labs greener

May 26, 2022
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? We discuss some noteworthy initiatives. Biology research is not unique in its use of single-use plastic, but it may be unique in its ability to address the problem.

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: 

  • Order in bulk to reduce waste associated with shipping and packaging
  • Plan experiments to minimize single-use plastics 
  • Opt for washable glassware over single-use plastic when possible 
  • Enroll in company programs that recycle packaging 

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.

  • In the space of reusable lab plastics, companies like Grenova are developing ways to wash and sterilize common lab plastics like pipet tips. To date the company has allowed over 910,000,000 tips to be reused, saving over $73,000,000 in research costs. 
  • Many companies are launching in the bioplastics space – a category defined by the use of environmentally-friendly bio-materials as the base for plastic-like products. Common starting points for these materials include structurally rigid biomolecules like cellulose and starches. Perhaps one of the most creative solutions in this space comes from Humble Bee Bio, a new startup creating a bioplastic inspired by a material made by a species of solitary bee used to waterproof their nests.  
  • While the field of bioplastics continues to grow, some biotechs are tackling the waste issue by improving our ability to degrade existing plastics in the first place. Companies like Epoch Biodesign are finding ways to develop enzymes to degrade plastics down to smaller carbon products – breaking down plastics into more environmentally-friendly materials. 

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.