Reducing Plastic Laboratory Waste
By Mari Yurichko
Single-use plastics, considered a “more convenient and cost-effective” option, have replaced many reusable glass pipettes and culture dishes in today’s laboratories.
But stories about plastic bottles found on beaches and microplastics in our food have started to turn public opinion against plastics. Once believed to be a cheap, light, and clean “wonder” material, plastic waste is now considered a serious environmental problem.
The Size of the Problem
In 2015, scientists from the Exeter University bioscience department estimated that they generated as much as 280 tons of plastic waste per year. Extrapolating their data, the world’s biomedical and agricultural labs could be producing more than five million tons of plastic waste annually.
Reduce, Rethink, Replace, Reuse, and Recycle
Let the five Rs guide your efforts to reduce plastic waste.
Buy smarter and use less. Review your lab supplies and what you buy. A color-coded spreadsheet may help you identify the different plastics you use and possible alternatives.
Assess your use patterns. Consider how many disposables you use to make your experiments easier to conduct. For example, buy smaller multi-well plates when each student must have his own.
Switch to reusable glass microplates, test tubes, or pipets when decontamination, cleaning, and re-use is a viable option. Reusable racks can replace pre-racked centrifuge tubes, smaller flasks or tubes use less material, bulk pipette tips can refill your tip boxes, and reusable glass products can be substituted whenever possible.
Weigh boats can be used multiple times for measuring the same chemical. Reuse offers environmental benefits and may also help a limited budget.
The most common recyclable plastics include:
- Polystyrene (PS): cultureware
- Polypropylene (PP): centrifuge tubes
- Polyethylene (high- and low-density, HDPE and LDPE): bottles, wash bottles, closures
Get Your Students Involved
In September 2019, PhD student Samantha Seah collected all the plastic and nitrile waste she used in one day as part of a social media campaign with eLife Sciences Publications. The campaign's goal was to show how much single-use plastic scientists were using across the world. With the hashtag #LabWasteDay, the group posted pictures of their plastic waste and estimated how much they'd generate in a year.
“I was definitely shocked by how much [plastic] I used, and I think many people were, too,” Seah said.
The environmental impact of laboratory plastic waste cannot be denied or excused. Make changes and educate others about the environmental benefits and cost-effectiveness of reduced plastic waste.
We have a duty as citizens and scientists to educate and conduct ourselves responsibly. By eliminating even some landfill waste, we can make an important contribution.
- Is plastic more or less expensive than glass to produce and recycle?
- What changes will you make to reduce plastic waste in your lab or classroom?