Single Use Plastics in the Lab
From tiny tubes to large barrels, plastics tend to pile up over time. The latest in our Climate & Pharma series.
Single use plastics are exactly what they sound like – plastic materials that are intended to be almost immediately thrown away. Everything from beverage and food containers to shipping materials to the everyday equipment in a lab can end up adding to the giant pile of plastics we consume every day.
Although many plastics can technically be recycled, they are downgraded in the process – meaning eventually they will end up in a landfill anyway. Plastics recycling is also expensive and unprofitable, so there is little economic motivation to recycle.
Laboratory plastics account for about 5.5 million tons of waste per year. These can include anything from packaging to syringes to beakers, and they have supplanted many other materials that we used to reuse – sometimes for good reason. They are cheaper, easier to standardize, and often arrive sterile before being used and discarded. In theory, no one needs to use water and manpower to wash glass beakers when a plastic one can be tossed.
But for many, the reality of increasing plastics pollution outweighs their convenience.
“I think I've been a household environmentalist since I was a child,” said Angeles Zamorano, Senior Project Leader in Biosafety Bioassay Development at Charles River’s Ballina site. “Trying to recycle, trying to learn about all the things you could do with any recyclable materials that comes from the house.”
As part of her master’s in biomedical science, Angeles decided to look more closely into commonly used plastics in labs. Single use individually wrapped sterile plastics are popular since they can be depended on to be safe. Anything that comes in contact with a biological substance can be tossed with hazardous medical waste, and the rest can theoretically be recycled. However, the recyclable materials need to be properly washed and put in the correct bins or else they are eventually tossed out.
“I chose the laboratory plastics because of my continuous battle for waste segregation,” she said. “Because I'm passionate about this topic and I always try to recycle in every household that I've lived, even sharing as a student, I was always trying to recycle and be more conscious about that.
”She found that plastics recycling is a complicated issue. A great deal must be done at every stage of the product’s journey for it to eventually end up in a recycled product. First, the manufacturer must label the plastic with a resin identification code (RIC), which indicates what type of plastic the product is made from. For example, this symbol means the product is made from polyethylene terephthalate and can be recycled.
Next, the product cannot be contaminated in any way that can’t be washed off. When it goes into the recycling bin (depending on waste management practices of the area), the product must be clean and all one type of plastic. A product made from different kinds of plastic, or one without a code, or one that is not clean will most likely be rejected for recycling.
These rules apply for every plastic product, but laboratory plastics add a few levels of difficulty. Almost everything used in a lab must be sterile, and some must be specially processed. For example, equipment for cell cultures must be coated to ensure cell and protein adhesion. For glassware this would have to be done every time, adding time and expense along with the risk of broken glass.
“Twenty years ago it was all based in glassware and we still did good science,” said Angeles. “But now we choose plastic for convenience because we don't have to wash it. We don't have to then validate the wash and demonstrate that the disinfectant is good enough for whatever testing we're doing.”
More companies, Charles River included, are committed to improving their sustainability efforts on all fronts. As we gain a better understanding of how our waste is affecting our planet, we see that changes must be made. Even just making better use of services that are already available could go a long way toward reducing the waste that ends up in the dump.