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Plastic Waste in Life Sciences Laboratories Tackling Waste: 5 Steps to Less Plastic Waste in the Lab

Author / Editor: Dr. Kerstin Hermuth-Kleinschmidt* and Julian David Senn** / Dr. Ilka Ottleben

Life sciences laboratories are another area in which plastic waste can be reduced. Approximately 5.5 million tons of plastic waste are produced every year in life sciences laboratories alone, including items like pipette tips, nitrile gloves, cell culture flasks. In the age of global waste pollution and the ubiquity of plastic in the world around us, this is definitely too much. It can’t all be changed, but improvements are possible in some areas.

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Fig. 1: In many laboratories, multiple sacks of consumables such as cell culture flasks, pipette tips, laboratory gloves and packaging are accumulated every day. Do we really need all of this?
Fig. 1: In many laboratories, multiple sacks of consumables such as cell culture flasks, pipette tips, laboratory gloves and packaging are accumulated every day. Do we really need all of this?
(Source: ©luchschen -

All around the world, more and more plastics are being produced and end up unchecked in the environment. Images of beaches covered in rubbish and the giant garbage patches in the world’s oceans full of disposable plastics and consumer products have shifted these problems into mainstream focus. High time for life scientists to take a look around their own laboratories as well and ask what each individual can do to reduce the waste mountain of 5.5 million tons that is generated every year by life sciences laboratories alone [1].

Of course, the use of plastics is justified by their excellent properties for use in life sciences, such as resistance to solvents and chemicals, the (usually) lower manufacturing costs, low weight and the almost infinite range of ways in which plastics can be adapted to the desired application area. On the other hand, though, we have to ask ourselves whether a laboratory really does need to produce several waste sacks full of consumables every day, including cell culture flasks, pipette tips, lab gloves and packaging. What can we replace, how can recycling be used in a meaningful way, and what solutions are available for the future?

The following article provides an overview of how small changes in the day-to-day laboratory environment, the use of alternative products and other ideas can help us all reduce our footprint. If you would like to calculate your own footprint, you can do this with the iGEM Goes Green GHG Emissions Calculator [3].

The three Rs – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

The three Rs strategy — reducing the amounts we use, reusing items and recycling them — can really be applied to all walks of life, so why not in laboratories as well? Admittedly, it is a challenge in this environment, but it is not impossible. Many people and organizations have already given a lot of thought to the topic. So, as an addition to the original three Rs, here are R numbers 4 and 5: Rethink & Replace.

Reduce — minimizing consumption of plastic

A high proportion of plastic waste is generated by disposable, single-use products like pipette tips or reaction tubes. Of course, these products are indispensable in the day-to-day workings of a modern laboratory, but there are options for reducing the consumption of resources here as well.

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Plastic — an indicator for the Anthropocene era?

Will our descendants ever look back at the Anthropocene era as the “plastic age”? According to a study by the University of California, between the 1950s and 2015 approx. 8.3 billion tons of plastic were produced [2]. The accumulated waste volume of primary and secondary, i.e. recycled, plastic waste is estimated at 6.3 billion tons for this time period. Of this amount, just 9% has been recycled at least once, 12% was incinerated and the remaining 4.9 billion tons was either buried in landfills or made its way uncontrolled into the environment, where it is still present today in virtually every corner of the world. Every year, starting from the coastlines around 4 to 12 million tons of plastic waste makes its way from the mainland into the oceans [29]. It was shown this year that the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” (GPGP) is accumulating plastic parts and objects at an exponentially increasing rate [30].

Already when designing a product, manufacturers can pay attention to resource-efficient design, production and packaging. By doing this, quite a lot can be achieved even for such a seemingly everyday product as a pipette tip. For example, the company Starlab introduced a special injection molding technique that allows them to manufacture their Tipone pipette tips with thinner plastic walls — without any compromise in terms of quality. After all, what use to the user is a more “eco-friendly” product if it fails to meet the requirements? The new technique uses up to 40% less polypropylene (PP) per pipette tip.

Not only this, but the design of the pipette tip racks and the refilling system also ensures that less material is used. Over the course of a year, this adds up to more than 25 tons of PP — in total, more than 125 tons of PP has been saved in the production of racks and pipette tips since the new production methods were first introduced. Despite the reduction in the amount of material used for the pipette tip racks, these components have retained the same level of robustness and the same suitability for autoclaving. According to Starlab, the excellent autoclaving performance means that the racks can be reused several times with the aid of a refilling system — with no loss in quality [4].

The company has already been offering practical, non-sterile refilling units for Tipone tips without filters for 20 years. However, particularly delicate applications require the use of filter tips, especially in cases where it is important to avoid aerosol cross-contamination. To meet this demand, Starlab developed sterile refilling units for filter tips some time ago, which are easy and safe to use. These are very popular, as they help to avoid contamination during the refilling process.