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Plastic Waste in Life Sciences Laboratories

Tackling Waste: 5 Steps to Less Plastic Waste in the Lab

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Rethink: Are biodegradable plastics a solution?

In the past, a number of individual approaches for the development of biodegradable single-use products have also been presented in the life sciences sector, but none of them have been able to really establish themselves [20]. The necessary times required for these products to decompose cannot always be met in industrial composting plants, and according to the German Federal Environment Agency (UBA), even when these times are met the process does not represent a useful and meaningful disposal practice, as it only produces CO2 and water [21]. Materials recycling would be a meaningful alternative, but this is technically difficult to realize at the moment [21].

Another alternative is bio-based plastics, i.e. “classic” polymers like polyethylene, which are made from renewable resources and represent a more promising solution. Some products based on “bio-PE” materials can already be found in the life sciences sector, such as laboratory flasks [22] or the base of pipette tip racks [23,24].

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Where can I get support, ideas and more information?

Choosing sustainable laboratory consumables:

  • It may be difficult for individuals to deal with each product and manufacturer. In the future, the ACT label developed in the USA, which evaluates the environmental friendliness of laboratory products, can remedy this situation [32]. These include recycling options, type of packaging and take back programs by the manufacturer. Currently, this label is still limited to the US, but an international expansion is planned for 2019.

Blogs, lectures and workshops:

  • "iGEMgoesgreen" has compiled a "green lab guide" with ideas for sustainable working and a tool for calculating the "CO2 footprint" of one's own laboratory work [32, 33]
  • On the US blogs of labconscious.com and mygreenlab.com you will find many more tips for the "green lab", in some cases also hints for sustainable laboratory products (but related to the US market). [34,35]
  • Anyone who would like to know, directly and on site, how their own work can be made more sustainable, can inform themselves in workshops and lectures on the topic of "sustainable laboratories" and work out their own ideas. [36, 37]

An assessment produced by the German Federal Environment Agency in 2012 arrived at the conclusion that foils made of bio-polyethylene (bio-PE) on the basis of Brazilian sugar cane have a lower impact and burden in terms of climate change and the use of fossil resources than fossil PE from European production [21]. On the other hand, the bio-based plastic places a higher burden on the environment if we take the sugar cane cultivation into account, and it leads to increased acidification of soils and oceans. This means that the resulting picture is still mixed at the moment, and it is necessary to investigate separately for each type of plastic and raw material whether this production variant is better in ecologic terms.

However, according to the study by the German Federal Environment Agency, the future most probably does lie in the use of bio-based, classic plastics, such as bio-PE, since existing recycling strategies can be exploited here, allowing the overall eco balance to be improved. Secondly, a future shift toward increased use of secondary raw materials (such as residual waste materials) instead of cultivated biomass like sugar cane, which needs to be grown specially, can also have a positive impact on the eco balance [21].

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