Scientists call for reduction in plastic lab waste

December 23, 2015, University of Exeter

Three researchers at the University of Exeter are calling for action to cut down on the five and a half million tonnes of plastic being generated globally in the course of scientific research.

In a Correspondence article entitled 'Labs should cut too' published in the journal Nature this week, they estimate that bio is responsible for 1.8 per cent of total global production, waste which weighs the equivalent of 67 cruise ships a year.

Drs Mauricio Urbina, Andrew Watts and Erin Reardon estimated that the 280 scientists in their own bioscience department at the University of Exeter generated roughly 267 tonnes of plastic waste last year. On the basis of this, they worked out that the 20,543 biologically-oriented research institutions worldwide will be producing 5.5 million tonnes of plastic waste between them.

"As scientists, our day- to- day research relies on cheap, durable, disposable plastic. We are forced to maximize value of research budgets, and often rely on cheap disposable plastic equipment which means ignoring the environmental consequences," said lead author Dr Urbina.

Their article urges the research community and funders to prioritise the potential environmental impact of plastics over the cost of research and take measures to reduce single use plastic waste.

"When we started doing the calculations for this exercise, using data provided by the University of Exeter Sustainability Office, I expected the contribution of research to the global plastic problem to be almost negligible - but we were surprised at how high the estimate is", commented Dr Reardon.

"At a time when governments are imposing charges for single use plastic bags and bottles, we think the scientific research community could be working towards reducing its dependency on plastic, and could be doing so without sacrificing scientific standards."

The authors say they are aware of the challenges faced in obtaining research funding and on keeping costs low. "However, we should not use disposable plastic items only on the basis of cost and the time saved. Does scientific research have to follow the market rules of producing peer-review papers at the lowest cost?" added Dr Urbina.

"I don't think it's possible to completely remove plastic equipment, for reasons of contamination and biological hazards, but there are definitely ways in which some items can be re-used. We want to challenge scientists to think about what they use and to see if they can reduce it. We see this very much as a starting point in an ongoing discussion," said Dr Watts.

The article proposes that funding agencies might incentivize greener practice with a budget to fund lab washing up and recycling facilities and by making it a requirement of the grant application process.

Explore further: Reduction in use welcome but more legislation required to solve waste problem

More information: 'Labs should cut plastic waste too' by Mauricio A. Urbina, Andrew J. R. Watts and Erin E. Reardon is published in Nature on Wednesday December 23 2015.

Related Stories

Gut bacteria from a worm can degrade plastic

December 3, 2014

Plastic is well-known for sticking around in the environment for years without breaking down, contributing significantly to litter and landfills. But scientists have now discovered that bacteria from the guts of a worm known ...

Sea turtles face plastic pollution peril

October 9, 2015

A new global review led by the University of Exeter that set out to investigate the hazards of marine plastic pollution has warned that all seven species of marine turtles can ingest or become entangled in the discarded debris ...

Recommended for you

After a reset, Сuriosity is operating normally

February 23, 2019

NASA's Curiosity rover is busy making new discoveries on Mars. The rover has been climbing Mount Sharp since 2014 and recently reached a clay region that may offer new clues about the ancient Martian environment's potential ...

Study: With Twitter, race of the messenger matters

February 23, 2019

When NFL player Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality and racial injustice, the ensuing debate took traditional and social media by storm. University of Kansas researchers have ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.