Can UCL scientists win the race against single-use plastics?

Lab culture is responsible for the generation of tonnes of plastic waste every year. But how are UCL scientists fighting the addiction to plastics?

Writer: Javier Bautista (Twitter @javibautista_)
Editor: Ebani Dhawan
Artist: Vera Liu

In October 2019, University College London (UCL) committed to becoming a single-use plastic-free university by 2024, as part of a wider sustainability strategy to tackle the global climate emergency. With UCL being one of the largest universities in the UK, this strategy will set the university as a national role model in environmental and social sustainability. However, considering the addiction to plastics in scientific labs, is this goal realistic? 

The use of disposable plasticware became established in lab culture with the assumption that they guarantee sterility, speed, and cleanliness – but with little consideration of the piling waste. A daily routine in the lab will usually consist of a variety of plastic-made equipment, such as tip pipettes, gloves, or Petri dishes, for mammalian cell work and tissue culture experiments. At present, most of the contaminated waste is bagged, autoclaved, and sent to landfill, or burnt at high temperatures, thereby polluting the atmosphere. In addition, any apparel that has been in contact with non-hazardous contaminants, such as glucose or even water, will have the same fate. Interestingly, a study carried out by the University of Exeter estimates that a staggering 5.5 million tonnes of lab plastic comes from biological, medical, or agricultural research institutions every year. 

At first glance, several strategies can be implemented to reduce the use of single-use plastics in laboratories. Appropriate waste management systems should be implemented in labs in order to facilitate the separation and recycling of plastics. Autoclaving should be considered as a method to decontaminate cultures, glassware, and pipettes. This provides the opportunity for plasticware to be reused and washed in the lab, but is highly dependent on energy, water, and trained staff. Yet, this would only pile on the main problem – laboratory buildings at Russell Group universities are estimated to be responsible for two-thirds of the total university energy usage. Another possibility is the substitution with glassware wherever possible, which could be washed and reused without generating more disposable waste. Nevertheless, these alternatives would require costly washing systems and personnel that impede their establishment. It also raises questions around how many times glassware can be reused without affecting the results, along with implications on the potential hazardous effects, and the availability of facilities. The need to reduce the use of plastics in research environments has encouraged researchers around the globe to find innovative solutions. UCL is leading this research with projects such as Designing-out Plastic Waste, which is focused on developing “new ways to design-out waste from plastic packaging and create new business opportunities”. One of its main objectives is based on a promising bacterium that was isolated in 2016. This bacterium secretes two enzymes that break down the PET polymer (the plastic used in water bottles and many food trays) into monomers, which the bacterium then absorbs and metabolises. As part of this project, UCL researchers are identifying and improving the performance of both the novel bacteria and enzymes with protein engineering. Researchers Dr. Kimberley Chandler, Dr. Dragana Dobrijevic, and Prof. John Ward tell us that: “a future process could be to use these PET-degrading enzymes to break down PET plastics into their monomers, which have value for making new PET, or as compounds for synthesising other more complex molecules. This would keep the carbon present in the monomers within a circular system of use.”

This may represent a revolutionary way in which we approach plastics in research – considering waste as a failure of design. The researchers point out that there is a lack of material substitution that can replace plastics when it comes to working with tiny volumes – a few tens of microlitres. This requires identifying alternatives that can curb the addiction to plastics. They tell us “we can envisage the development of plasticware made from easily recyclable materials, as well as the development of protocols whereby laboratory plasticware can be diverted from incineration, safely sorted, and recycled by melting it back into the polymer for recycling.”  

There are many other labs at UCL that are currently focusing on achieving greater sustainability and are similarly involved in lab waste prevention. In terms of creating an immediate impact, the UCL Sustainability Team is pioneering The Laboratory Efficiency Assessment Framework (LEAF), which provides an easy and thought-out means for researchers to make their labs more sustainable. LEAF also offers guidelines around plastic usage and disposal. So far, LEAF led to over £400,000 of financial savings in its first year across the institutions that took part in this project, and saved as much carbon as removing 132 cars from the road. Martin Farley is UCL’s Sustainable Labs Advisor and is focused on making sustainable science easier to conduct: “I think LEAF’s calculators have really proven to be a hit – in quantifying savings they allow labs to report on improvements, and thus incentivize colleagues to join their efforts. It also validates the work they put in for their superiors, and long-term we hope will convince funders to take action in this area.” The engagement of sponsors is also a critical step, as it could add momentum to the implementation of sustainable measures in research labs. 

Sometimes, plastic waste generated from lab work may be considered unavoidable, as it comes from pre-made kits that contain plasticware such as membranes, columns, or mini-centrifuge collectors, which can rarely be recycled. As such, industry manufacturers of lab supplies must also engage with this movement by using plastics from greener biological sources and not fossil fuels. In order for UCL to achieve its goal, the university must partner with sustainable lab-supply industries. Joanna Marshall-Cook, Senior Sustainability Manager at UCL, says: “lab consumable manufacturers are already starting to change the products that they offer and we hope that by setting this level of commitment and ambition, we can drive our supply chain to develop new innovative solutions, which will actually save researchers money on consumables.” This can provide an incentive for researchers to become more sustainable in their approach to lab work, as it demonstrates that labs that are more sustainable save more money! Therefore, researchers can observe a reduction in expenses while reaching their research goals. By providing an outline on how to run labs more sustainably, LEAF offers guidance on actions that scientists can take and helps them better understand some of the wider implications of running a lab. The UCL community will have a great say in the successful implementation of sustainable measures in the lab, and student-led sustainable projects, festivals, and teaching that aim to raise awareness in favour of the sustainability campaign are already taking place. Online social platforms are also being used to generate wider public engagement. For instance, the campaign #LabWasteDay on September 17th aims to create awareness on how much lab waste each lab member generates. 

If you want to get involved and make an impact, you can start by reaching out to the UCL Sustainability Team, implementing LEAF’s guidelines to your lab, and getting involved in student-lead volunteering programmes such as The Climate Collage

UCL’s pledge to become a single-use plastic-free university by 2024 may be considered ambitious by many, but it is encouraging to see how UCL projects such as Designing-out Plastic Waste and LEAF are setting the university in the right track to succeed in its goal.  

With thanks to Dr Kimberley Chandler, Dr Dragana Dobrijevic, and Professor John Ward (Designing-out Plastic Waste), Martin Farley, and Joanna Marshall-Cook (UCL Sustainability Team).



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