May 10, 2021

HARTE | Unsustainable Science

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Every year, birdsong and flower buds mark the arrival of warm temperatures in Ithaca. While these signs of spring may feel reassuringly constant, they are occurring earlier each year due to climate change. Birds shift their migration timeline and flowers bloom closer and closer to the winter months. As a hub for climate and ecology research, Cornell is home to many scientists studying the effects of climate change on ecosystems.

While researchers analyze climate impacts in the lab, they generate enormous amounts of plastic waste. Scientists from the University of Exeter estimated that in 2014, biological, medical and agricultural research labs used 5.5 million tons of plastic. This is equivalent to 83% of plastic recycled worldwide in 2012. Researchers use plastic because of its convenience. From petri dishes to pipette tips, many tools for biological research are made from plastic. Single-use materials ensure that experiments are free of contamination, and plastic implements are cheap enough to justify disposal after just one use. Most lab materials are autoclaved, or sterilized at high temperature and pressure, before being sent to a landfill

The throwaway culture of science has detrimental effects on the environment. The extraction of fossil fuels and the processing of these materials into plastics emits greenhouse gases. In addition to the carbon footprint of their production, plastics have direct impacts on ecosystems. Waste mismanagement and littering allow plastics to enter soil and waterways, where animals can ingest them and become sick. Even when disposed of properly, single-use products degrade into microplastics that can more easily enter ecosystems and contaminate drinking water.

Scientists can mitigate these environmental impacts by reducing their plastic use. Many materials used for biological experiments have metal, wood or glass alternatives. For example, researchers can replace plastic inoculation loops used for plating bacterial colonies with wooden sticks or metal loops. Glass is also an option. As prevalent as plastics are in research labs today, scientists relied on glassware before plastic was invented. Labs can reduce their overall consumption by using smaller containers for experimental materials when possible, buying chemicals in bulk and planning experiments to minimize use of consumables.

Research institutions such as Cornell must encourage scientists to make changes. Labs often purchase supplies from centralized stockrooms at their institution. At Cornell, the department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology operates a stockroom used by researchers across chemistry and the life sciences. To reduce packaging, stockrooms can offer common materials such as pipette tips in bulk. Institutions can also nudge researchers towards more sustainable options. At the Vienna BioCenter, glass pipettes are free to scientists and supplied at locations closer to research labs than are plastic pipettes.

Reusing materials also lowers consumption. Alternatives such as glass can be more costly and harmful to the environment than plastic when used only once. Researchers at the University of Edinburgh have developed a method of decontaminating plastics with chemical treatment and autoclaving. The lab equipment manufacturer Grenova also makes a pipette tip washer that can be tuned to different standards of cleanliness. While sterile materials are crucial for some experimental methods, such as tissue culture, reusing implements may be more acceptable in teaching labs or when performing protocols that are less sensitive to contamination.

Why have few labs adopted more sustainable practices? Reusing experimental materials takes time and money. Scientists who are busy with their research may be unable to wash the bags of plastic waste that they generate each day. In the age of glassware, some labs hired dishwashers to maintain their operations; however, paid help is costly. Furthermore, the water and heat needed to autoclave materials for reuse can lead to an expensive utilities bill. Though it is unclear how the cost of washing and reusing lab implements compares to simply buying replacements, it is no question that washing instruments demands time. Without institutional support, researchers have little incentive to reuse plastic materials when it is easier to simply throw them away and open up a new package.

To encourage sustainability, research institutions can make reusing lab materials an attractive option. Scientists at the University of Edinburgh created a centralized decontamination system to sterilize materials and return them to labs for reuse. When reusing materials is more expensive than replacing them, institutions or grant agencies could provide funding for sustainable science.

Universities such as Cornell must consider lab waste when taking institutional action to promote sustainability. While students faithfully lug reusable takeout containers to dining halls and replenish their water at bottle refill stations, labs on campus continue to churn out plastic waste. As reducing and reusing have a more positive environmental impact than recycling, research institutions should support labs in lowering their plastic consumption. They can even go so far as to ban plastics. Leeds University and University College London have pledged to eliminate all single-use plastics on campus by 2023 and 2024 respectively. Institutional action will be key in reaching these goals.

While Cornell is not currently considering a ban on single-use plastics, pending legislation in New York State aims to lower plastic consumption in hotels. If approved by the governor, Senate Bill S543 would prohibit hotels from providing guests with small plastic bottles containing personal care products such as soap and shampoo. To push forward this legislation to reduce single-use plastics, consider expressing support for the bill to your state Senator or Governor Cuomo.

Emma Harte is a junior in the College of Arts & Sciences. Comments can be sent to [email protected]. Guest Room runs periodically throughout the semester.