The problem with polymers: plastic waste in scientific research

Sophie Byrne highlights the actions that researchers can take to reduce their contribution to the plastic waste crisis.


Plastic waste has become a bit of a buzzword in recent years, and for good reason; it harms wildlife, and microplastics (small plastic particles produced when plastic breaks down) are found throughout the food chain.


Scientists are often motivated by the positive impacts of their research, including improved human and environmental wellbeing. Many are therefore troubled by the eye-watering 5.5 million tons of plastic waste that are estimated to be produced each year by research labs. The Sars-CoV-2 pandemic is likely to have increased this due to heavy use of PPE and other extra precautions taken to reduce infection.


In 2015, scientists from the University of Exeter published a commentary in Nature on how researchers should reduce plastic waste. They highlighted the need for increased sustainability in scientific research, particularly the life and medical sciences. But what has changed since then?


I followed up with one of these researchers, Professor Mauricio A. Urbina, over email. Now based at the Universidad de Concepcion in Chile, Prof. Urbina studies animal physiology, particularly in the context of environmental pollutants. He said that becoming completely plastic-free isn’t currently feasible, however reducing our waste wherever possible is key: “All solutions will have a footprint (plastic, water, power, carbon, and so on), but at least we are now open to explore these options."


Research materials

Funding in research labs doesn’t go very far when you have to budget for every pipette tip! Being more mindful of laboratory waste disposal and using reusable options when possible can therefore help save precious grant money while also helping the environment. Most research council funding comes from public money, so spending it responsibly is important.


A lot of laboratory plasticware is made of polypropylene, a thermoplastic polymer which is generally recyclable. However, contamination by laboratory chemicals and biological material such as microorganisms often prevents recycling.


Packaging

It’s not just lab equipment and consumables which contribute to the huge quantities of plastic waste produced by scientific research – packaging also plays a significant role, according to Prof. Urbina. Unsustainable packaging is an issue raised by Green Labs Birmingham (a group of researchers based in the School of Medical and Dental Sciences who highlight sustainability issues in research).


An example of excessive packaging can be seen here (a tiny bottle containing antibodies next to a large box). The good news is that the amount of packaging used for lab materials can be reduced, and where that is not possible (for example where sealed plastic is required to keep equipment sterile) packaging can sometimes be recycled. Companies swapping to plant-based insulation (such as recyclable/biodegradable paper or maize pieces) for temperature-sensitive products can reduce plastic usage and waste.


Courtesy of Patrick Shearer on Twitter

Progress

Despite the alarming quantities of waste produced during research, it’s not all bad! Rapid progress is being made by suppliers and researchers alike, with groups such as Green Labs raising awareness and companies developing innovative solutions to reduce and recycle plastic packaging. Companies such as New England Biolabs now use recyclable, returnable insulation instead of polystyrene, while others allow polystyrene boxes to be returned and reused.

However, this may not be enough – we need innovative solutions to allow more plastic waste to be recycled and prevent its use in the first place. For example, companies including Clean Waste Systems and HospiCycle clean and sterilise contaminated plasticware for recycling. In addition, advances in microfluidics and lab-on-a-chip technologies allow us to do accurate experiments using a fraction of the resources previously required.


Closer to home, it is important that individuals and groups such as Green Labs continue to raise awareness about sustainable research practices. Researchers must then act accordingly to put their advice into action.


Future initiatives

Based on information from Green Labs Birmingham and a panel of experts at the 2020 Wiley Analytical Science Conference, the following steps can be taken to reduce the environmental impact of research:

  • Use reusable beakers instead of disposable plastic containers for measuring liquids

  • Use glass bottles that can be sterilised in an autoclave for making sterile media or culturing microorganisms

  • Reuse the boxes that equipment (e.g. pipette tips) comes in

  • Order from companies with recycling services and sustainable packaging where possible

  • Separate paper and plastic components of packaging and recycle them separately

  • Work towards Green Impact certificates

  • Encourage funding bodies to provide incentives for reducing plastic lab waste

  • Continue to raise awareness around the issue, including encouraging suppliers to adopt more sustainable practices

While it is currently impossible to eradicate plastic waste in research, a combination of innovative technological and ‘holistic’ approaches can help us reduce our impact. These include changing the way we use and dispose of packaging and equipment in the lab, and companies improving the sustainability of their supply chains.


From Issue 22: the Dark Side of Science

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