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Science’s addiction to plastic: Something needs to be done

Rhian Gruar explores the hypocrisy of the scientific community not listening to its own advice on plastic.

Are scientists complicit in the increasing amounts of plastic waste polluting our earth? Or is the waste generated by research an unavoidable by-product of scientific progression? These are questions which struck me during my summer placement in a bioscience research lab. I was shocked by the sheer amount of plastic waste that can be generated from the simplest of experiments. Day in, day out I end up discarding countless single-use plastics: a pair of gloves here, dozens of plastic tubes per failed cloning attempt and an endless heap of pipette tips. 

I like to consider myself an environmentally conscious person but does my reusable water bottle and thrifted clothes really mean anything in the face of the massive volume of lab waste I’m generating? 

In the wake of the IPCC’s 2021 climate report that unequivocally attributes recent increases in extreme weather events to human action, I believe that the scientific community needs to take a stand. And I’m not alone. Researchers from the University of Exeterestimated that bioscience research may be responsible for up to 1.8% of annual global plastic consumption. Scientific researchers themselves need to think carefully  about the rate at which they consume plastic. A one litre plastic bottle takes two litres of water to produce and 450 years to decompose. By 2050, plastic may outweigh fish in our oceans

With  so much research funded by  government and public money, do researchers have a duty to limit their environmental impact and be held to similar standards as any other government funded project? Or is plastic a necessary evil to keep the cogs of scientific research running smoothly? 

Plastic’s durability, mouldability and cheapness makes it a versatile product that can survive in the hands of even the clumsiest scientists. Single-use plastic is also an easy work around for the eternal issue of contamination that plagues bioscience research. Contamination could be chemicals, left over in a test tube from a prior experiment, interfering with results or different strains of bacteria mixing while they are being grown. Simply disposing of equipment after an experiment greatly minimises these risks. 

Contamination doesn’t cease to be an issue once a piece of lab equipment has been discarded. Biological and chemical contamination is a major complication in dealing with lab waste. Material that has been exposed to harmful chemicals or biological matter cannot simply be sent to a local landfill. It must first be sterilised by high pressure steam in a process called autoclaving which requires a large amount of energy and water, exacerbating the negative environmental impact of research. According to the University of Oxford’s Environmental Sustainability Strategy, “laboratory buildings are responsible for over 60% of total energy consumption and carbon emissions across the university”. Labs are packed with equipment that demand  high energy supplies. For example, older models of lab freezers can consume four times more energy than the average UK household.  A move towards more sustainable energy sources may help mitigate some of these costs. 

Despite all this, science cannot be stopped. From medicine to sustainable eco-technology; we depend on the work  carried out in labs for almost everything. Researchers who are investigating plastic eating bacteria which  may help cleanse the oceans of plastic waste must utilise the very single-use plastic that they are aiming to eliminate. Of course, if they are successful, the eventual benefits will far outweigh the temporary costs.That’s still a big if. 

This issue may seem hopeless but there are measures that can be implemented today to help make science more sustainable. Scientists should be encouraged to return to the three Rs that have been drilled into us from primary school: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. 

Reduction can come by sharing resources with neighbouring labs, so nothing goes to waste, or opting for suppliers that limit unnecessary packaging. A switch back to glass equipment should be made in instances where contamination between uses is not an issue. 

Contamination makes reusing lab plastic more complex, but some companies aim to change this. Grenova, a lab supply company that focuses on sustainability, has developed a washer that sterilises pipette tips for reuse. Tips can be reused up to 40 times without compromising the quality of experiments. With this innovation, almost 1 billion pipette tips have been reused to date. 

Similar issues surround recycling lab waste as  reusing equipment. Most recycling plants are hesitant to receive lab waste due to contamination. Some specific services exist, such as a program that recycles lab gloves, but more work needs to be done in this area. 

As with all sustainability efforts, individual action is not enough, and change must come from an institutional level. The University of Oxford’s Environmental Sustainability Strategy aims for net zero carbon emission by 2035. Oxford labs need to work to find solutions to the problems of plastic use in their own labs in order for this goal to be reached. Advice is available to scientist on running a sustainable lab and there are opportunities for labs to gain sustainability accreditation. Funding bodies also need to exercise their power by favouring labs meeting certain sustainability checkpoints, to steer scientific research into a new, more sustainable age. 

Science labs will continue to work in this way  for the foreseeable future, churning out academic papers, new technology and tonnes and tonnes of plastic waste. Our understanding of climate change is due to the work of scientists, and many of our hopes to halt or reverse its effects also rest on the shoulders of scientists. They, and the institutions supporting them, need to turn some of their focus to how their own actions are damaging the planet and set an example to all those looking towards science for hope.

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