Our Plastic Problem
Packing my lunch each morning usually involves a reusable glass container, a metal fork or spoon from home, and a cloth napkin. After arriving at work, I’m always excited to see that my labmates’ lunches are similarly equipped. We’ve merrily discussed some of the ways we try to reduce our waste, proud of ourselves for bearing the slight inconvenience of remembering to bring reusable grocery bags to the store as part of our efforts to be eco-friendly and to reduce our waste. But by the end of a wet bench workday, we’ve thrown away countless single-use plastics and usually without even considering the consequences.
Wet bench science, in which experiments involving biological or chemical reagents are carried out, currently relies on single-use plastics such as pipette tips, conical tubes, petri dishes, and more. Plastic waste, as whole objects or as microplastics, has been found all around the globe, including deep within the oceans, in the fish we eat, and even in the air of the Pyrenees Mountains. These exorbitant levels of trash harm the planet and all of its inhabitants. As more and more fields and industries have shifted to reduce plastic waste, biomedical research seems to lag behind. There are unique challenges that make it more difficult for wet bench science to catch up. For example, to maintain the purity and integrity of samples, and therefore our ultimate findings and conclusions, a new (plastic) pipette tip is necessary for each and every sample and reagent; we can’t simply reuse a plastic tool. Additionally, recycling our used plastics has its own issues: most of what we throw out is considered biohazard material and, rightly so, has very specific disposal requirements.
Maintaining sample integrity and handling biohazard waste are just a couple of the logistical problems we need to address to make our work more sustainable. However, what is more concerning is the general disregard of our laboratory waste production. Some efforts have begun, such as glove recycling programs and My Green Lab, but they are not widely utilized. As a scientific community, we either don’t seem to notice or don’t seem to care about the mountains of plastic trash we produce at work in a day while also fretting over a single plastic fork gone in the trash. And it’s not that our waste reduction efforts outside of lab are unimportant, but our apparent ignorance and indifference to the volume of plastic that we throw out in lab comes across as hypocritical and is surely unacceptable. We need to change how scientific research is conducted, but we cannot do that until we recognize and accept the need for change. Biomedical research is saving us, but its reliance on plastic is also harming our only home.
Peer edited by Julia DiFiore