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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

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?

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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