Plastic Pollution in the Lab

(January 29th, 2016) A whopping five-and-a-half million tons of plastic waste is generated annually in bioscience labs over the world. The global scientific community needs to sit up and take notice, urge Mauricio Urbina and colleagues.

Five-and-a-half million tons of plastic waste! To help you wrap your head around that number, we’ll put that into context for you. Five-and-a-half million tons corresponds to the weight of roughly “67 cruise liner ships or to 83% of the plastic recycled globally in the year 2012”, state Mauricio Urbina, Andrew Watts and Erin Reardon in a correspondence article titled ‘Labs should cut plastic waste too’ recently published in Nature.

Contacted by Lab Times for a follow-up, Urbina begins by telling us how they got started on this study, “I work on Comparative Animal Physiology, and as such, I got involved on a project evaluating the effects of micro-plastics on marine invertebrates. One day, I asked my colleagues: Do we know how much plastic waste our research generates? In that moment I realised that they had never thought about this and that there was not an easy answer. So we decided to make an effort to estimate that.”

This led the researchers to the Sustainability and Waste and Resource Management Offices at the University of Exeter. “After meeting with them, they provided some of the statistics they had on waste management for our department,” narrates Urbina. Based on these figures, they were able to estimate that the 280 bench scientists in their own bioscience department had generated approximately 267 tons of plastic waste in 2014, alone.

“That is equivalent to about 5.7 million empty 2-litre plastic bottles. Some 20,500 institutions worldwide are involved in biological, medical or agricultural research (where plastic disposal is likely to be heaviest), so that could equate to around 5.5 million tons of lab plastic waste in 2014,” explain the researchers in their Nature article.

The investigating scientists were themselves taken aback by the scale of this number. Mauricio Urbina says, “I think the numbers we obtained were a bit of a surprise for everyone, yet, everyone at the department was happy that at least now we know our ‘number’. I mean, we have at least estimated the potential magnitude of the problem.”

This is not the first time that researchers have called for a more ecologically responsible attitude towards disposable plastics in research. Urbina is optimistic that global research institutions and scientists can contribute immensely in rectifying this situation. He offers measures that scientists could incorporate with immediate effect at the bench.

“Yes, there is a lot we can do to reduce our plastic waste. Even, there is a lot we can do as individual researchers. For example, everyone should have an idea of how much plastic waste his or her research generates. In the same way that we fill in forms to justify the number of animals we are allocating to our experiments, we should estimate how much single-use plastic we are planning to use, and come up with measures to decrease that,” he says.
Further, he elaborates, “In the longer term, we should start re-using some of the single-use plastic items we actually dispose. For example, microplates and tubes for water samples could be cleaned and safely re-used. Researchers, laboratories, departments and universities should start quantifying their plastic wastes and thinking in ways to reduce this.”

Ultimately, we need to encourage a cut back on disposable plastics at all levels. “Science should not follow the market rules of producing science at the lowest cost. Funding agencies should prioritise research projects that minimise the use of single-use plastics and allow findings for using more durable items in research,” suggests Urbina.

According to Urbina, their wake-up call has received a positive response from the scientific community. “Our article has been broadly read and extensively shared among public media. Colleagues have recognised the importance of the issue and have expressed the need for such estimations,” he shares. Furthermore, Urbina is organising a symposium on ‘Plastics and micro plastics in aquatic environments: Fate and effects’, where the effects of micro-plastics on marine invertebrates, fish and birds will be discussed. “This symposium will congregate national and international experts in the field, serving as a platform to enhance our knowledge on the effects of plastic pollution. This symposium will be hosted at the Universidad de Concepcion (Chile) during the Congreso de Ciencias del Mar in May this year.”

Now is the time to rethink your use of disposable plastics in the lab!
Reduce, re-use and recycle today!

Latika Bhonsle

Photo: Fotolia/ science photo

Last Changes: 05.02.2016