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Science Has a Plastic Pollution Problem

... but we can all do something about it

Flora Zhiqi Wang

Though science gives rise to legendary breakthroughs and amazing solutions, it also creates problems of its own. Along with all ethical controversies, chemical contaminations, and safety concerns, plastic pollution is one of the non-negligible problems that have been well-neglected. While researchers may feel guilty ejecting hundreds of pipette tips into their waste bins daily, very few are aware of how much plastic waste research activities actually generate. Extrapolating from the amount of plastic waste produced annually by the University of Exeter, an astounding 5.5 million tonnes of plastic waste is predicted to come from research activities in the biosciences alone. This is roughly equal to two percent of the global plastic waste and equivalent to 83 percent of all plastic recycled worldwide in 2012. It is ironic that without putting much thought into sustainable research practices, even research aimed at tackling environmental problems seems to destroy the environment more than it saves it.

Microplastic pollution: What we thought was far away from us is now in us

According to an article by the National Geographic, at least eight million tonnes of plastic waste enter the marine ecosystem each year. These plastic wastes travel with oceanic currents, not only harming wildlife by strangling and injuring birds and marine animals, but also by entering the food chain in the form of microplastics. While people may be aware of the detrimental effects plastic pollution has on ecosystems and marine life, many of us may not realize that microplastics have travelled so far up the food chain that they now directly affect our wellbeing. A recent article reported clear evidence of microplastics accumulating in human organs. The researchers collected 47 samples from organs of deceased individuals and found traces of microplastics in every single one of the samples, making plastic pollution no longer a problem that we can choose to ignore.

Single-use plastic petri dishes for growing bacterial cultures. Photo by: Hayley McKay

Eliminate plastic waste in the lab: replace single-use plastic with reusable glass

Members of the scientific community are by no means innocent of the plastic pollution problem which now jeopardizes our own health; it is thus imperative that we take action now. On the brighter side, many universities and researchers have begun to take small actions here and there, and more are reporting the issue and bringing it to public attention.

Recently, members of the McCourt Lab and the Lumba Lab in the Department of Cell & Systems Biology at University of Toronto have also realized this issue. Earlier this fall, James Bradley, a postdoc in the Lumba Lab, often complained about the amount of plastic wasted just for making starter cultures (overnight cell cultures): “I just don’t like the idea of using so much plastic.” As such, James started autoclaving (sterilizing) glass tubes in bulk, soon getting into the habit of washing culture tubes and autoclaving them right after use, and eventually eliminating the use of plastic culture tubes altogether.

Meanwhile, Ph.D. student Michael Bunsick dug out some 20-year-old glass serologicals (long pipette tips used to draw up volumes between 5 mL and 50 mL) and started promoting them in the lab. “Let’s use these from now on, I’ll wash them every week,” Michael said to the rest of us as he kindly offered to do the chores. “It shouldn’t be much extra work once we get used to it. And you know what else we could do? We could start ordering and using glass Petri dishes.” I had no idea that glass Petri dishes even existed, but a few days later Michael actually came to the lab with a huge box full of them. Our lab uses approximately 500 plastic Petri dishes per month which costs about $200; while glass Petri dishes are slightly more expensive (roughly $3 each), using glass Petri dishes is definitely more cost-effective in the long term. In five years time, using glass instead of plastic Petri dishes would save you enough money to host 100 lab pizza parties.

Despite a brief transition period, the Lumba Lab has managed to reduce its use of most single-use plasticware in less than two months. And while I did complain about having to wash 30 tubes after a long day of experiments (or else risk not having enough tubes for the following day’s experiment), I was happy that I did not have to throw away 30 plastic tubes just for some cell cultures and worry about the marine life I would kill in doing so.

Reuse plasticware and reduce the use of premade commercialized products

It is true, however, that not everything can be replaced by glass—for example, glass tubes would shatter spinning at high speeds in a centrifuge, and it is necessary to use a new pipette tip for each different sample to avoid contamination. Yet, the old saying “reduce, reuse, recycle” has not gone obsolete. For centrifugation, thick plastic centrifuge tubes can be reused, and 15 and 50 mL conicals can also be reused after sterilization.

Being mindful of the little things while conducting experiments can also help reduce the use of plastic pipette tips. For example, if you were to add a chemical into a series of buffers with increasing salt concentrations, adding it to the buffer with the lowest salt concentration first and then moving up in concentrations would allow you to reuse the same tip throughout the process. It is unlikely that the higher salt solution would be diluted with the remaining bit of low concentration solution in the tip; however, if the chemical was added to the buffer with the highest salt concentration first, a new tip would have to be dispensed each time. Similarly, when diluting solutions with water, adding water first would allow us to use the same pipette or serological for water and the stock solution, since water won’t contaminate the stock. Moreover, when a specific mixture will be needed in many different experimental trials—as for enzymatic digestions, polymerase chain reactions (PCRs), and yeast transformation mixes—making a master mix instead of individual mixtures every time helps not only to eliminate tip waste, but also increases accuracy and minimizes sample-to-sample variation.

Labs that use pre-made gels and pre-made buffers should also consider making their own gels and buffers so they will not need to throw away the plastic gel plates, buffer bottles, or plastic wrappings that come with these daily. Some believe that having readily available gels and buffers significantly speeds up research; in reality, it does not take long to make gels or buffers at all. Gels can be made in batches and researchers can conduct other experiments while waiting for their gels to set. One can also make highly concentrated 20X or even 50X buffers to avoid making them regularly. By doing so, researchers would not only be able to cut plastic waste easily, but also gain a better understanding of the properties of the reagents they are working with.

Become better scientists by practicing sustainable research

As scientists, our job is to make the world a better place, and it certainly would not make sense if we end up destroying it more as we try to save it. The plastic pollution problem may be more serious than we imagined, and scientists may have been guiltier than we thought, but it’s never too late to change! By substituting single-use plasticware with glassware and promoting sustainable practices in research institutes as well as undergraduate lab courses, we can all help cut plastic waste and become better scientists.

This article was originally published by The Strand, Victoria University's student newspaper on October 13, 2020.


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