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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

Other companies are also looking at similar options: the Californian company Labcon reduced the plastic share in its pipette refilling systems and swapped the plastic outer packaging for recycled cardboard [5]. New England Biolabs has reduced the use of plastic in its molecular biology kits for DNA purification by up to 44% by introducing plastic flasks and columns with thinner walls [6]. This is a very simple way to reduce consumption of materials and costs in the lab.

But — no waste at all is certainly the best kind of waste. For this reason, another issue alongside careful product selection is the use of good inventory and ordering management to help avoid duplicated orders and single orders that are not really necessary. Group orders help to reduce delivery costs and save resources by avoiding unnecessary delivery miles — and, where appropriate, the larger packaging sizes reduce associated packaging waste. Anyone who would like to keep a digital overview can choose from a range of Inventory Management Tools, some of which are available at no cost. And there is potential for savings when it comes to the actual “manual work” on site. In cell and molecular biology labs, it e.g. already helps to calculate the minimum number of reaction tubes and prepare master mixes [7]. This not only reduces the number of reaction tubes and pipette tips, but also the time expended.

Reuse — wherever it is possible

In many life sciences laboratories, plastic materials are increasingly replacing glass and other materials: with single-use inoculation loops made of plastic instead of stainless steel, single-use Erlenmeyer flasks or single-use Pasteur pipettes made of plastic — the list goes on, and we could add many more products. Single-use, disposable products provide sterility and save time — on the one hand. But on the other hand, they are one of the biggest driving forces behind the increasing amounts of waste being produced, including the packaging that needs to be added for every product. We must therefore ask ourselves where the use of single-use products makes sense, and where it can be avoided.

Pipettes and Erlenmeyer flasks made of glass have a longer service life and can be cleaned and autoclaved in laboratory washing machines or UV-sterilized. The same applies to Petri dishes etc. Here, an about-turn to restore working practices that favor increased, expedient reuse of glass and other materials would not only offer environmental benefits, but would also relieve the pressure on research budgets.

The US company Grenova Solutions has taken a different approach. They have developed a special washing device that rinses pipette tips so that they can be reused. Although this may initially sound like a strange idea, it does actually appear to be a genuine alternative on closer inspection. Researchers at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in the USA [8] use slightly more than 11,000 pipette tips per week for a single method in high-throughput screening. 60% of these are used just to pipette solvent. These pipette tips were put through several washing stages, ultrasonic treatment and then UV-sterilization, after which they could be reused without any issues whatsoever. They displayed no contamination or soiling, no loss of quality in terms of the shape and materials, and the dimensional accuracy during pipetting remained within the tolerance limits. Overall, it was possible to use the pipette tips ten times in a row, reducing levels of pipette tip waste by a half. Based on their own estimates, this has meant savings of around USD 24,000 in a single year.

This approach could be worth considering, particularly in high-throughput screening and anywhere else where large numbers of pipette tips are used for buffers or solvents. According to the manufacturer, it is even possible to reuse pipette tips that have been used for e.g. PCR experiments or for transferring serum or plasma samples [9, 10].

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