• Race to a Cure Authors

Plastic Waste in the Biomedical Industry


Image is courtesy of dreamstime.com.


The Problem


Plastic pollution is one of the main contributors to the global climate crisis. Every year, humans produce 380 million tons of plastic and reports indicate that only 50% of this is for single-use. Plastics are polymeric materials, meaning that their molecules are very large and resemble long chains. Most humans use synthetic plastics, which are developed specifically to overcome natural decay. Derived from petroleum, these plastics take hundreds to thousands of years to biodegrade. It finds its way into the ocean and eventually settles onto the seafloor, creating a wasteland that is nearly impossible to clean. Not only this, but it breaks down into smaller pieces called microplastics, which harm ecosystems and can make their way into our water and food.


Plastics can be found in almost every industry-- retail, construction, electronics, fishing, and even scientific research. Plastic Petri dishes, gloves, pipettes, and pipette tips are essential for conducting research. Their resistance to solvents and chemicals, low manufacturing cost, and light weight make them a desirable material. However, approximately 5.5 million tons of plastic waste are produced every year for laboratory use in the world. At the University of British Columbia alone, their research department produces 64-128 tonnes each year.


The Solution


On September 17, 2020, the hashtag #LabWasteDay was used by scientists to share pictures of the plastic waste generated by their lab work. From the photos, most scientists produced 300-400 grams of plastic waste a day, which equates to 70-100 kilograms per year.

Image is courtesy of twitter.com, from the hashtag #LabWasteDay.


To combat this, the same approach that is used for household and consumer plastics can be used for laboratories: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle.


Image is courtesy of cen.acs.org.


Reduce


Reducing the use of plastic in research begins with conscious decisions in the laboratory. This includes buying items in bulk/in groups or using smaller tubes to prevent excess packaging. Another way to reduce plastic consumption is by picking vendors that have zero-waste manufacturing facilities. One example is Labcon, which reduced their plastic use in pipette refiling systems and changed their packaging to recycled materials. Many other manufacturers are looking into making their practice more sustainable, from reforming design systems to production. MilliporeSigma is an example of such, which lets customers return containers and coolers. After being sterilized, the plastics are turned into plastic lumber for use in the community. Jeremy Whitford, one of the company heads for MilliporeSigma, says that the scope of sustainability needs to be much broader - from the chemicals scientists use to conducting their experiments differently.


The concept of biodegradable plastics has been presented several times, but no company has yet to succeed with them. Bio-based plastics have polymers like polyethylene which are made from renewable resources. There are over a dozen types of bioplastics and they are produced by microorganisms that have been genetically engineered. These bioplastics are extracted and chemically processed into plastics. Another source that bioplastics can come from is chitosan, found in crustacean shells. Not every bioplastic is biodegradable, but they are recyclable. However, while bioplastics can lead to lower waste, the process of obtaining them can be harmful to the environment, such as increased acidification of soils and oceans. This case is exemplified with materials made with Brazilian sugar, according to an assessment done by the German Federal Environment Agency.


Reuse


The biggest issue when it comes to reusing equipment in the laboratory is contamination. Although it is encouraged to use glass alternatives when possible, (such as inoculation loops and erlenmeyer flasks) plastic equipment is still the easiest and most convenient option. However, by sterilizing and reusing equipment, scientists can significantly reduce their waste output.


The US company Grenova Solutions developed a special washing device that rines reusable pipette tips. Grenova supplies around 100 labs in the world and it is estimated that over 110 million pipette tips have been washed and reused through their products. This saves the labs around 9 million dollars in cost and prevents an estimated 325,000 pounds of plastic from going into the waste stream.


UV sterilization and washing do not affect the quality, accuracy, or shape of the equipment. Overall, glass equipment is sturdier and should not cause any issues of contamination or soiling if sterilized correctly. Aside from UV and ultrasonic treatment, this can be done through autoclaving. Autoclaving is a process for decontaminating cultures, glassware, and pipettes. It is extremely environmentally friendly as it does not require the use of any reagents and uses high-pressure steam instead.


Recycle


Recycling plastics is a physical process. It requires recycling centers to wash the plastics, grind them up, and melt them to form new products. Contamination becomes another issue, as waste must be sterilized or autoclaved before sent to a specialist handling company. Most labs are not allowed to recycle things into general recycling streams - which is why some universities take it into their own hands to create recycling programs.


At the University of British Columbia, there is a Lab Plastics Program that was developed in 2010. The program aims to recycle all plastic packaging and plastic lab products supplied to campus labs. Through white bins, plastics are collected and processed through the university’s Facilities Management department.


All products that are non-hazardous can be recycled by this program. This includes tips used to extract DNA, plates, tubes, pipette tip boxes, microplate boxes, and all #1-7 plastics.


Image is courtesy of sustain.ok.ubc.ca.


Scientists can also purchase products with recycled plastic materials. This reduces the use of raw materials, however, may not have the highest quality for usage.


With new biomedical advancements and the prevalence of a global pandemic, it is especially important for laboratories to make conscious decisions about their waste. Not only will this help the environment, but it can also save space and cut down on costs. A combination of reducing, reusing, recycling, and redesigning is key if we want to make zero-waste labs a possibility in the future.



Article author: Jennifer Law

Article editors: Sherilyn Wen, Valerie Shirobokov