University College London (UCL) made a series of pledges last week to cut down on plastic waste, help mitigate climate change, and make its research and teaching facilities more environmentally sustainable, according to a press release issued on October 16. If all goes to plan, UCL will divest from fossil fuel–producing companies by the end of this year, have one and a half football pitches’ worth of green space on its campus within five years, and offer vegetarian options only through its catering and hospitality services by 2030.
Among the most tangible changes to affect UCL researchers is the phasing out of single-use plastics, which is to include lab plastic materials such as Petri dishes, pipette tips, and tissue culture plates.
“I think it’s the right thing to do,” says Nicole Kelesoglu, a former research technician and current editor of the sustainable lab practices blog Labconscious, which is operated by reagent supplier New England Biolabs. Achieving the goal by the stated deadline of 2024 will be challenging, but “it’s very possible to do this if you have the technology and if you have support staff for the scientists.”
Since 2018, UCL has had a voluntary program in place to help researchers make their labs more environmentally sustainable and cut down on waste, but the new sustainability strategy will affect labs across the board. “We are currently scoping out which items we can replace now and which ones we will need to work with our supply chain and researchers to find suitable alternatives for,” according to a statement sent to The Scientist. The statement also points out that the University of Leeds has made a similar plastics-free commitment.
Recycling companies are often reluctant to accept waste that may be contaminated or contain hazardous material. However, several options exist for labs to reuse their own plastic items or glassware, according to Kelesoglu. For instance, Dutch laboratory equipment supplier GC Biotech has developed a machine called the Grenova Tipnovus that washes and sterilizes contaminated plastic pipette tips so researchers can reuse them. Some labs use volumetric glass pipette tips, reusable glass bottles for filtering culture media, and glass Petri dishes.
Washing glass lab products can be time-consuming for researchers, so support staff may be needed to maintain researchers’ productivity, Kelesoglu notes. According to UCL’s statement, “our aim with the approach is to achieve a plastic-free campus without impacting the efficiency or productivity of research,” although it is still unclear how the university will achieve that goal. Although glass products also cost more upfront, over time they may bring down costs, Kelesoglu adds.
Some products may be harder to find suitable alternatives for. That is likely the case for the tissue culture plates that UCL biologist Tim Arnett, who studies the development and function of bone cells, frequently uses in his lab. They’re typically made of transparent polystyrene, which allows researchers to observe and photograph samples easily, and cells to adhere to the plastic surface. “The cells love growing on this in tissue culture,” Arnett says.
He can’t think of other materials that cells like to grow in, nor of how to reuse the polystyrene plates. “By washing these plates very carefully after use and then reusing them . . . you’d never get rid of all of the cell debris that was attached, and if you used conditions that were sufficiently aggressive to do so, you would almost certainly damage the plates themselves and damage that optical clarity.”
Kelesoglu acknowledges that finding reusable alternatives may prove challenging. “That’s definitely a valid point,” she says about the plastic tissue culture plates, for which she can think of no good alternatives. Perhaps commitments like UCL’s will motivate laboratory equipment suppliers to find sustainable materials that cells like to grow on, she suggests. “We hope that by setting this level of commitment and ambition we can drive our supply chain to develop new innovative solutions,” the UCL statement reads.
UCL will also be working with suppliers to eliminate plastic in packaging, which forms a considerable chunk of plastic waste in labs. Some suppliers already offer take-back schemes, for instance, which would help cut back on waste, according to Martin Farley, who advises labs at UCL and King’s College London on sustainable practices.
There will be challenges, but Kelesoglu hopes they can be overcome. If Britain’s largest university does meet its commitment, it may inspire other institutions to do the same, she says. “If they can do it, then anyone can.”
Katarina Zimmer is a New York–based freelance journalist. Find her on Twitter @katarinazimmer.