Improving Plastic Sustainability in your lab


The issue of plastic pollution is of growing concern and awareness around the topic has been rapidly growing with governments such as the EU introducing mandates that manufacturers must use at least 30% recycled content in their plastic products from 2025 or the UN’s sustainable development goals. The science world is not exempt from this concern to improve plastic sustainability.

This is due to the rise of companies such as GreenLabs and schemes to improve the recycling of plastic consumables used in labs. This article aims to address some of the challenges that may be faced when trying to make your lab greener and also some suggestions on how to improve plastic sustainability in your lab.

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Due to the nature of cell culturing labs, moving towards more sustainable use of plastic poses many challenges. A study from the University of Exeter estimated that labs around the world produced around 5.5 million tonnes of plastic waste in 2014. As of now, there is a lack of infrastructure for the recycling of plastics used in labs used for cell culture in the UK. Presently, the majority of plastics consumables that are contaminated are autoclaved and sent to landfills, as recycling plants will not accept them due to the perceived health and safety risk that they present. Unfortunately, even the plastics which are not contaminated will meet the same fate.

Another challenge when tackling the issue is changing the way people think. The average person does not know about the complexities of recycling or even that there are different types of plastics and they need to be disposed of differently. From a young age we are taught to throw things away or recycle them if we can, but due to the lack of education around recycling, many plastics that cannot be recycled end up in recycling bins which leads to further sorting issues down the line. The reverse also applies, some people may simply not care enough to put recyclable plastics in the correct bins and instead throw them away with general waste or a recycling bin may not be immediately accessible.

Along with a lack of infrastructure to recycle the plastic waste produced in labs, there are still many labs that are individually trying to reduce their plastic consumption, but not a lot on a grander scale. This may be due to cost and also a lack of incentive to do so. In the introduction, it was mentioned how there will be EU mandates introduced on recycled content in products by manufacturers. Cell culturing labs need to come under similar scrutiny for effective changes to take place, as well as other possible incentives such as grants that encourage a more sustainable approach to plastic consumption.

Single-use plastics make up a huge chunk of the plastic waste that is produced and also make up the large majority of the plastic consumables used in labs. Some of the reasons that single-use plastics are used in place of more sustainable alternatives are that they are cheaper, more easily replaced and help save time. This convenience has embedded a throw-away culture in labs that need to be addressed.

Steps That Can be Taken

1. change of mindset

There are several steps that can be taken to become sustainable in the use of plastics in the lab. Some methods can be implemented immediately, while others may take a longer period of time to see a lasting effect. One of the easiest ways to get started is to get people educated about the plastics in the lab. This would include things such as learning the different types of recycling codes, understanding which consumables and packaging are recyclable and which aren’t. Improving the overall awareness around recycling will cause people to become more conscious and cautious when disposing plastics.

The 5Rs should also be also be introduced to the members of your team in order to further this change. These are: Reuse, Reduce, Repurpose, Replace and Recycle. Reuse and Repurpose differ when it comes to reusing plastics. Reusing is reusing the same item for the same application and Repurposing would be using the same item for a different application to its intended use. Out of the 5Rs, Recycle should be the last option, since recycling processes consume energy which may come from fossil fuels.

2. Make it Visible

Another method that can be effective is the use of visible graphics which will cause your team to be more aware of disposing of plastic consumables properly. This can be posters which have information about how and when to recycle, which packaging materials are recyclable or any relevant information around the topic. Ideally you would want to place such posters near bins so that members of your team see it before wishfully recycling or throwing away something that could be recycled.

The use of a colour code system can also be very useful to help your team properly dispose of plastic consumables. Colours can be assigned based on the polymer resin that the plastic is made from. For example, polystyrene can be green and polypropylene, yellow. This will allow members of your team to quickly associate a colour with a plastic and dispose of them more easily and quickly.

3. Alternate Materials

Alternative materials for lab consumables can be used in place of virgin plastic which is a viable method but is often more expensive, time and effort consuming. For example,  polystyrene stereological pipettes can be replaced with glass ones. Although glass pipettes are more expensive they are are reusable and may end up being cheaper in the long-term as they are don’t need to constantly be replaced. However, there comes the cost of thorough cleaning of these glass pipettes after every use.

This can be very time consuming and result in longer downtime, since they need to be soaked in decontaminating solution for an extended amount of time to be sterile again. Whereas with the polystyrene stereological pipettes, they can easily be discarded and replaced immediately, without the frequent need for washing. The solution to this problem would be to buy enough glass pipettes so that they can be used in almost the same manner as the polystyrene pipettes, where there is no downtime between decontamination washes.

4. Decontamination Stations

Decontamination stations can be used to turn single-use plastics into reusable ones. In this scenario, plastic consumables that are not contaminated can be washed and reused provided that they do not need to be used in sterile conditions, while those that have been contaminated must be soaked in a decontamination solution before being autoclaved.

This requires knowledge of which plastics can be autoclaved. A study carried out at the Roslin Institute showed that used falcon tubes can be decontaminated and autoclaved for use again, with no signs of contamination. This study also suggests using autoclavable plastics in place of non-autoclavable ones so that they can be reused. The use of decontamination stations would require institutional support and can be included in the training of all students and staff.

5. Specialist Recycling Schemes

There are a number of schemes and companies that recycle plastic consumables used in laboratories. Tradebe collects used laboratory plastics such as pipette tip boxes as they are made with a high-quality virgin polymer, allowing it toeasily be recycled. Tradebe recycle up to 200 tonnes of pipette tip boxes which would otherwise end up in landfill.

6. Centralisation

One way to make your lab’s use of plastic consumables more sustainable is to centralise it. This means reducing the number of suppliers your lab orders stock from. This may not lead to reduction of plastic use in the labs but definitely will reduce the amount of plastic packaging and emissions that comes from ordering stock from numerous suppliers.

7. Creating KPIs

In order to reduce the amount of plastic waste manufactured in labs, it is important to establish a baseline and know how much plastic waste your lab produces. Research carried out by Alves  et al. promotes using a digital scale to weigh bags of plastic waste before disposing them. The researchers also suggest monitoring the number of plastics taken and used from stock rooms, over a 4-week period to establish a baseline for plastic consumption. It would also be beneficial to keep track of the work done during this period, as some techniques and procedures will produce various amounts of plastic waste.

Establishing this baseline will allow you to see if any of the reuse or reduce methods have been effective and possibly act on them depending on your results for the following months. The results from this study showed a large reduction in plastics used and an increase in money saved. The practices that were introduced saved a total of 1670 plastic falcon tubes over 4 weeks which equates to 20,000 per year, saving £1,390 per year.

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