Biomedical research, whether in academic or corporate setting, has a high material and energy demand per person (1). Labs are energy-hungry workplaces which use daily several voracious electrical equipment and a lot of cooling and ultra-low freezing (1, 2). Also conducting experiments requires extensive shipping of goods for use in labs and a crazy amount of single-use products. Indeed, a typical laboratory-based biomedical researcher will produce each year 10s to 100s of kilos of plastic waste (3–5). Lab plastics were estimated to account for 2% of the world’s plastic production in 2014 (3), and increased further since (6). The making and disposal of single use products themselves has a high carbon footprint.
I wanted to gather information on the current sustainable policies in place at institutes in Europe. So, in 2019, I asked 260 of my colleagues, collaborators and acquaintances in biomedical research over 8 different institutes in 6 European countries.
What are labs doing to reduce their footprint?
First, I wanted to know what measures were taken by labs/institutes to spare energy or resources (Figure 1). Surprisingly 14.4% of respondents answered not knowing, highlighting the need for good and clear communication to/from researchers. Energy saving and use of green chemistry reagents was less reported with only about 30% of respondents. These two last points are not often discussed, while these have non-negligible impact on the lab’s footprint. Yet, only few evidence-based guidelines are available to orientate labs to more sustainable practices in green chemistry and energy usage. Most respondents indicated that their lab had a recycling policy in place (73.1%). While this in encouraging, it can easily be improved especially for office-side recycling. It is really a low hanging fruit.
Taken together, there is room for improvements. Bringing more sustainable practices guides (such as these from LEAF, UCL) may be key in improving energy and green chemistry implementation in labs.
How good are our labs at recycling?
Next, I wanted to know more about the recycling of specific waste (Figure 2). Organic waste was seldomly recycled (16.7%). While representing only a very small fraction of research’ waste, organic waste releases great quantities of CO2 per mass when burnt due to high water and carbon content. 44.4% of the respondents reported to recycle shipping derived materials such as cooling elements and shipping boxes. The most reported materials to be recycled were paper/cardboard (88.9%), followed by glass (72.7%). This is good, but as glass and paper recycling in Europe is commonly available, these should be 100% recovered!
Plastic waste is one of the major sources of waste in labs. Because there are different types of plastic, I divided the question into general plastics (packaging, …) and lab-derived plastics (tips, tip boxes, media bottles, tubes, flasks, …) used in the labs. Whereas general plastics were partly recycled (58.8% of respondents), non-contaminated plastics from within labs were seldomly recycled (21.8% of respondents). This is rather counter intuitive as the mass of lab-derived plastics produced is much greater than the one of packaging. Possible contamination of lab plastics may be the main limitation in their recovery.
Together, these findings indicate that we need to reinforce compliance to existing waste streams and improve recovery of organic waste, and shipping-derived material. In addition, it shows that the most abundant waste stream – lab plastics – are not recovered at scale.
How can we turn exciting but polluting research, into just as exciting and sustainable research?
The high volume of lab waste and very low amount being recycled are alarming. Great initiatives and efforts are made to incite reducing, reusing, and recycling lab plastics and materials (3–5, 7, 8). Optimization of experimental design and practices can help reduce waste, but experimentation still need to happen.
Optimization limits the damage, but it doesn’t fix the problem!
Most of the focus on lab waste has been on plastics. Many advocate the replacement of this evil plastic. Plastics, as a material, is probably not the worst option in many cases. While thorough life-cycle assessment (LCA) of lab plastic usage are still lacking, we can use consumer product as an example. Indeed, LCA assessment of milk container found that glass is the least sustainable alternative with more than 2 times the global warming potential than plastics bottles (9). Indeed, glass is heavy, requires harsh mining and high temperatures to make, and breaks easily. For growing bacterial culture, glass may be a better alternative to plastics, but for tips, filters, tubes, packaging, plastics are still probably a better option…
To fix the material usage problem in research, I believe that changes are required in the way we design and dispose of lab plastics.
The way we design of products is key sustainable science
I believe that circular economy design principles can provide the required framework for a systematic change. Circular economy aims to keep the material value within product by continual use in a close-loops system (11). It integrates the “reuse, reduce, recycle” concept that many knows. Yet at its core, it includes the key principle of the product design. Products in the circular economy are designed to be material-efficient, easily disassembled for re-use, or as last resort easily recycled. The intent of the product is to be recovered in whole, or in parts. If the design is right, the reduction, re-use and recycling of a product becomes flawless. The product in the circular economy is designed to keep its material in the circulation, as part or as whole.
Translated into lab plastics, manufacturers need to design material-efficient products. These products could be modular to facilitate the reuse of parts. Each component of a product needs to be easily taken apart to allow reuse, or alternatively, sorted and recycled. Only by such drastic changes in the system, will-we really cut down biomedical waste and the associated carbon footprint at scale.
Let’s do it!
The design of culture vessels are already being challenged by academic scientists (12). Why not by manufacturers? I believe that failure to innovate plastic-efficient products will lead to loss of market shares for big manufacturers, and gain of customers to many smaller innovative companies. Manufacturers need to innovate to put plastic-efficient product on the market. Now.
We need innovators, whether in established companies or start-ups, to take on the challenges and opportunities that lab-plastics offer. We need manufacturers to lead in the production lab consumables of tomorrow and to innovate in the circular economy (13). We need institutes to dare pilot studies with companies offering innovative material-efficient labware. We need researchers to communicate to their teams, managers and lab providers that they want a sustainable change.
Let’s bring the circular economy to the lab and allow researchers to improve health and do – awesome & sustainable – science for the coming generations.
Footnotes: I am grateful to M. C. Wolkers for critical reading, S. Heshusius, M. Hansen, L. De Wael and G. Vidarsson for suggestions and discussions. I am also grateful my colleagues and collaborators who helped distributing this survey amongst their colleagues.
I do not have any conflicts of interest to declare.
Who am I? I am Ben Nicolet, a Postdoc in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. My views and opinions are mine only.
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