Waste in research labs

by Eva Amsen

Research contributes to global warming. I’m not surprised. I often feel ridiculous when I make the effort of turning off lights at home while my cells have to grow 24/7 in a 10% CO2 incubator that’s always running. 10% is not the normal amount of CO2 – most cells grow at 5% – which means that only my three flasks are in this big incubator all by themselves. Nobody else can use it, they need 5%. And not to mention the large quantities of lab waste.

I’m working on a little project that I don’t have time for at all, but it’s about lab waste. I took a bunch of photos of single use items and of different ways we handle trash (without identifying my own lab, because this is all very general. I am thinking of checking Flickr for other contributions – the whole thing will be under a creative commons license anyway). It’s very odd: on the one hand there’s a lot of thought put into how lab waste is handled and I am more confident at the lab about which object goes in which bin than I am at home, where there are confusing objects like paper lined with plastic. And “muffin trays” are not recyclable, according to an info sheet I saved, but I never have muffin trays, so I have to guess which other objects are of the same plastic. Styrofoam? I don’t think it’s recyclable, but one of my previous roommates put it in the blue bin all the time. At the lab it’s much simpler: toxic stuff gets incinerated (red bag), liquid chemicals are sorted in different containers, and pretty much everything else goes in the yellow bags, which are sterilized before being sent to landfill. But there is so much stuff that has to be sterile before it becomes garbage: to make it easier, everything is sealed in individual wrappers and disposable, so you know it’s clean. I only found two wrappers or objects that we could easily replace with something less wasteful. Everything else has become so standard that it’s not even possible to work with anything else.

I’m spoiling my own project. I’m sorry. But it’ll be fun. Meanwhile, if you have photos that show waste processing in your lab that you wouldn’t mind me using (you’ll get proper credit) please drop me a line.

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Jamie McQuay May 9, 2008 - 10:35 AM

>I only found two wrappers or objects that we could easily replace with >something less wasteful. Everything else has become so standard
>that it’s not even possible to work with anything else.

How about using glass pipette tubes (i.e. reusable)? Watching the biologists transfer a sample, throw out the pipette, transfer a sample, more garbage is sickening…

If the waste in the lab gets you down, do some calculations on the carbon one lab puts into the air flying everyone around the world for conferences…

Eva May 9, 2008 - 10:41 AM

We already reuse the pipettes that haven’t been contaminated with anything biological, but the ones that have touched bacteria or cells can’t (are not allowed to) be recycled. I guess in the past people sterilized those, but I don’t think we even have enough autoclave space for everyone’s pipettes.

The original link was about the impact of flying to conferences. It makes me feel slightly better for never being sent to any conferences (In my entire career as a grad student I went to only one conference, and I had to *ask* to go there.)

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