Harry Warner throws another pipette in the bin. He needs approximately ten of these little plastic pipes for a single experiment, measuring fluids. Warner, a post-doctoral candidate at the department of molecular biology, is one of the many UG and UMCG researchers using disposable plastics. He cultures cells from human beings, and he needs to work as cleanly as possible. Plastic test tubes and pipettes, the packaging of the ready-made liquid fertiliser; everything is immediately thrown away after use. The tissue culture lab at the Linnaeusborg uses approximately forty thousand euros of plastic instruments a year.
And that’s just a single lab. It’s estimated that 1.8 percent of plastic waste worldwide is produced by scientific research. No one knows how much plastic waste the UG produces exactly, but the labs at the Faculty of Science and Engineering (FSE) produce 40 percent of the total waste coming out of the faculty. That’s 66,000 kilos of gloves, used plastic, and other materials a year, excluding plastic packaging. In comparison: the general waste produced last year, including the packaging, was 40,000 kilos.
Plastic Free Week
Researchers are concerned about how much plastic they use. Renate Kat, a PhD candidate at the department of neurobiology, says: ‘Why am I going to the trouble of reusing plastic baggies at home when I’m throwing all this plastic away at work?’
She participated in the Plastic Free Week organised by the Green Office, the department that promotes sustainability at the UG. As she was saving on the use of plastic at home, it once again confirmed just how much plastic she threw away at work. ‘It’s like the lab is behind. We’re not making any changes when it comes to plastic waste, while people at home are becoming much more aware and doing things for the environment.’
The lab is behind; people at home are becoming more aware
Warner also says the use of all that plastic is ‘highly frustrating’, especially when he gets a clean instrument just to be sure when it may not have been necessary. ‘When I suspect I may have accidentally contaminated a pipette, I would rather throw that one out than risk losing the whole experiment, which would also be a waste. You have to use plastic to reduce plastic.’
Friso Aalbers, post-doctoral candidate at the department of biomolecular chemistry & catalysis, says it’s ‘awful’ that the tubes used to grow bacteria are now made of plastic. Glass tubes can be cleaned and sterilised, but this takes time. ‘I’ve realised over the past few years that there’s been an increasingly extreme emphasis on saving time, which leads to more waste.’
Researchers are under a lot of pressure to achieve as many results as possible in a short amount of time, and disposable plastic instruments come in handy. Aalbers: ‘Every product that saves us time is a good product. It doesn’t matter what it costs.’ In an effort to change things, Aalbers sterilised a bunch of glass test tubes for his colleagues. ‘They loved the fact that I cleaned them. But we’re running out and I don’t know if I’ll have the time to prepare a new batch.’
Researchers want to use less plastic, but they don’t always know how. Besides time, hygiene is another big concern. ‘Experiments have become increasingly complicated and expensive over the past few years’, says Aalbers. ‘They have so many small steps that it can be hard to figure out where something went wrong. It’s nice to know that at least your tools weren’t at fault.’ At least you know where a plastic pipette fresh out of its packaging has been before: nowhere.
On top of that, each researcher is responsible for their own experiment and the materials they use. There is no real central policy. ‘Professors don’t seem to be concerned with it or even have much of an opinion on the matter’, Aalbers says. ‘If it saves time or money that’s great, but we’re responsible for it ourselves.’
Marthe Walvoort, associate professor of chemical glycobiology, acknowledges that group leaders have other things on their minds. But she doesn’t think it’s a matter of unwillingness. ‘If there are other options, I wouldn’t mind spending a little bit more of the budget on a sustainable alternative. But I’d have to be sure that it’s better.’
Every product that saves us time is a good product
It’s not always clear which is the more sustainable option. Walvoort: ‘Thoroughly rinsing and heat-sterilising glass costs a lot of energy and water. So what’s better?’ Group leaders can’t be expected to find all that out themselves. ‘We could use more facilities for sustainable options.’
Is nothing being done? There is on a faculty level. After all, the UG is in seventh place on the GreenMetric World University Ranking. There are buildings with heat pumps, the university separates its waste, there are green cafeterias, as well as energy-efficient refrigerators and fume hoods: the university and the faculties try to invest in sustainability for everything they’re in charge of themselves. But the labs aren’t part of that: they’re responsible for their own operations. They have their own budgets and determine their own work processes. So when it comes to sustainability, it’s every lab for itself.
Kat wasn’t happy with that and decided to take action herself. Together with her colleague Suzanne Lanooij and the Green Office, she recently started the Greener Labs Committee, a diverse group of researchers and staff members who together brainstorm about how the labs can do better.
Kat and Lanooij are currently working on putting together a Green Guide for lab managers, full of tips on how to save on energy and plastic. If a certain product has a more sustainable alternative, like one made of recycled plastic or something that uses less packaging, the Green Guide presents a range of options, with pictures.
It also provides examples of products that can be reused, or glass alternatives. They’re only guidelines, though. ‘Each lab is different’, says Lanooij. ‘The Green Guide is also aimed at getting people to think twice.’
The Greener Labs Committee mainly aims to inform and raise awareness, and there’s a lot of work to be done. A quick survey among FSE researchers showed that almost no one knows that fume hoods are very energy-inefficient because they pull in outside air that needs to be heated. Closing the hatch when you’re not working saves a lot of energy.
We hope to have a budget for sustainable alternatives
In the end, they would like to see bigger changes as well, like a budget to purchase more energy-efficient equipment, a utility room to clean the glass, or a change in the AFAS system so it displays a pop-up with a more sustainable alternative to instruments. Kat: ‘We hope to have a budget for that in the future.’
They’re currently focusing on the things the researchers themselves can do. ‘All told, that would have quite an impact. We’ve seen a lot of goodwill among the people we’ve talked to.’
They’ll be testing the guide after the summer to see how much they’ll be able to save. Walvoort is eager to see the results. ‘I’ll gladly help out with proven sustainable alternatives.’
Warner is also positive. ‘If my work can be more sustainable without endangering my experiments, I’ll gladly make the changes.’
Tips for a greener lab
- Use glass whenever you can
- Turn off equipment as well as the lights when you leave
- Close the hatch on the fume hood whenever you step away
- Use your gloves whenever safely possible
- Be aware of the product packaging. A bag of pipette tips is made of less plastic than the ready-made containers.
- Save freezer space by throwing away materials of colleagues who have long since left
- Discuss sustainability options with the rest of your lab