Mindful Research: 5 Steps to a Minimal Waste Lab

Published: February 04, 2020

by Vivienne Tam Science & Policy Exchange

Research labs are often seen as leading the charge in progress towards environmental sustainability, developing new green technology such as bioplastics. But did you know that life sciences laboratories generate 5.5 million tons of plastic waste per year and that the associated environmental impact is estimated to be 100 to 125 times more than at home?

I work in an engineering research lab and only noticed the hypocrisy of my actions a few months ago. While I try my best to reuse every plastic bag I come across, I recklessly dispose of many pipette tips, glass vials, and Petri dishes over the course of one experiment. It just never crossed my mind that environmental sustainability could apply to a laboratory setting.

When I asked my colleagues if they knew what happens to our waste after it leaves the lab, they told me that lab waste goes straight to incineration, due to unknown contamination. It seems that the common sentiment is that there is enough to worry about in a lab setting, the priority being obtaining publishable results. If we were to worry about anything else, it would be lab safety. Sustainability just does not make that list of priorities.

But as scientists who care for the future of this world, how can we simply turn a blind eye to how our own scientific research practices are contributing to the plastic waste problem?

There are, of course, university-wide schemes that can be implemented on a large scale to save plastic waste from ending up in a landfill. For example, the University of Edinburgh’s Chemistry Department has been running a glove recycling program that has recycled 85% of all its used gloves over the past five years.

But, these programs are still sparse in the academic world. What can we do as individual scientists to reduce our laboratory waste?

Here are five ways that you can start being sustainable in your own lab:

1. Make environmentally-conscious purchases for your experiments

The ‘don’t buy what you don’t need’ principle applies here as well. Too often, we buy a chemical or reagent we only need for one experiment, and it sits in storage space until it is disposed of.

Instead of making the purchase straight away, see if another lab has it and if you could use a small amount of it. Then, make the purchase if it will be a worthwhile investment.

When you are making purchases, there are many ways to be sustainable. You can buy refillable pipette racks instead of single-use ones, or make sure that you only buy the size of multi-well plate you need so that you are not only using a few wells before throwing out the whole plate.

Additionally, you can look into buying green lab supplies from the many companies that are starting to produce such products.

2. Keep the packaging when you receive chemicals

Whenever we make an order, it always comes in plastic wrap, Styrofoam and cardboard. I save all my packaging items because I never know when they might come in handy — whether it’s to send a package of my own, use as a pipette waste container, or even DIY experimental setups.

If you want to reduce the amount of packaging you consume, try bulk ordering or buying materials from your university’s supply store.

3. Plan your experiments to reduce waste

If sustainability is taken into account as we optimize our experiment, I believe we could make some significant changes. Ask yourself: do you really need to use that many centrifuge tubes or pipette tips?

For example, you could label one pipette tip ‘water’, so that every time you pipette water, you can reuse that tip instead of using a new one each time.

Are there ways you could be using more washable glass rather than disposable plastic? For example, you could use a glass measuring cylinder for solvent volumes instead of pipette tips.

4. Reuse containers after an experiment

I am guilty of throwing away many glass vials even though they could very easily have been washed and re-used. All it takes is a thorough washing with soap and water, plus a rinse with ethanol to remove labels, before sample vials can be used again.

Of course, don’t compromise the integrity of your experiment, but do put thought into whether a vial can be reused a few times before it is disposed of.

5. Look for ways to save energy around the lab

Laboratories are huge energy-suckers, due to a large number of fume hoods, freezers, and electrical equipment they contain. You can reduce the amount of energy used by making sure to clean out freezers so that space is not needlessly taken up with many old samples, or by closing the fume hood sash when it is not in use.

You could also make sure to not leave equipment on overnight, or put them on a timer so that they turn off during certain periods of the day.

Environmental sustainability in research labs is still in its infancy and for real progress to occur, universities need to get on board and start large-scale recycling programs or implement school-wide energy-saving measures.

However, until then, we can do our part by integrating these five small practices into our research routine. As we change our own research practices, it will surprise our colleagues in the lab that it is possible to be sustainable without compromising the integrity of our experiments. All it requires is some mindfulness and intentionality!