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Finding Single-Use Plastics Alternatives for Research Labs

When universities commit to finding single-use plastics alternatives, they often exempt their labs. Usually, such commitments focus on drinking straws and bottled water. But university labs can be a major source of environmental strain. According to Martin Farley—who served as the UK’s first laboratory sustainability officer, back in 2013—the labs at research-intensive universities usually account for about two-thirds of the environmental impact of the university as a whole. “We have people recycling at home, and doing nothing in their labs,” Farley notes. “[but] your impact on the environment [in the lab] is 100 to 125 times more than at home.”

For a 2015 study, a team at the University of Exeter estimated that university research labs generate more than 5.5 million metric tons of single-use plastic waste each year.

Thankfully, an increasing number of educational institutions are making “plastic-free campus” commitments that include their labs. For example, in the past year University College London (UCL) and University of Leeds, California State University’s 23 campuses, and SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry have all committed to finding viable single-use plastics alternatives for their labs within the next five years (or sooner).

Single-Use Plastics Alternatives for Your Labs

Recycling is a far cry from eliminating single use plastic altogether. But it’s an important first step, often neglected in labs—or even avoided, out of fear of liability or contamination.

Martin Radolf (head of environmental health and safety at the Research Institute of Molecular Pathology and Institute of Molecular Biotechnology) found that simply reminding researchers to separate plastic packaging in their labs could significantly increase recycling efforts. (Labs may choose to autoclave these items prior to recycling, on the off chance they’ve been potentially contaminated.)

David Kuntin, a biomedical researcher at the University of York, has determined they can go one better. As he puts it, “the contamination we deal with is probably less dangerous than a moldy tin of beans you might have in your recycling after a few weeks.” He and his colleagues developed a “decontamination station” to pre-treat recyclable lab items. They subsequently reduced the amount of plastic they were sending to landfill by about a ton per year. Kuntin marveled that they saw such a sharp reduction—thousands of plastics diverted from landfills annually—with only marginal effort in a single lab.

plastic pipette tips pose unique challenges

Finding alternatives to single-use plastic pipette tips is a special challenge

Pipette tips pose special challenges to labs trying to keep a plastics-free pledge. For some applications, labs can shift to easy-to-autoclave volumetric glass pipettes. Unfortunately, that isn’t always practical. But researchers are making headway. In 2019, a group at the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences ran a few tests. They found that, when properly washed, their “single-use” plastic pipette tips were indistinguishable from new tips when used to prepare small-interfering-RNA screening libraries. Other groups have reported similar results. Some have even succeeded in washing, disinfecting, sterilizing, and reusing “single-use” tips 25 to 40 times.

Committed to Reducing Waste

From the start, Priorclave North America has championed the central role energy efficiency can (and should) take in lab operations. We’re always happy to work with any lab looking to tackle a challenging sterilization situation.