Can laboratories curb their addiction to plastic?

Research scientists have largely gone unnoticed as major users of unrecyclable material. Now some universities are helping them kick the habit

Scientific research is a largely ignored consumer of single-use plastics, with the biomedical sciences a particularly high-volume offender. Plastic petri dishes, bottles of various shapes and sizes, several types of glove, a dizzying array of pipettes and pipette tips, a hoard of sample tubes and vials: they have all become an everyday part of scientific research. Most of us will never use such equipment, but without it, we wouldn’t have the knowledge, technologies, products and medicines we all rely on. It is vital to 21st-century lives, but it is also extremely polluting.

In 2015, researchers at the University of Exeter weighed up their bioscience department’s annual plastic waste, and extrapolated that biomedical and agricultural laboratories worldwide could be responsible for 5.5m tonnes of plastic waste a year. To put that in context, they pointed out that this was equal to 83% of the plastic recycled worldwide in 2012.

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