Earth Day: Sustainably Achieving Sustainability

Many people in synthetic biology, including myself and much of my lab, are working on using biology to make things more efficiently, renewably, and sustainably. Being able to make plastic replacing biomaterials, chemicals, medicines, and fuels in living cells from renewable resources (especially in photosynthetic organisms that need only sunlight and water) will undoubtedly decrease our dependence on fossil fuels and with a lot of work in policy and process and infrastructure engineering may one day become truly sustainable. It's difficult to not notice, however, how unsustainable most scientific research is, especially in terms of the plastic waste and the consumables we throw away in everyday lab work. In a busy day of experiments working towards making sustainable biological fuels I can generate huge amounts of plastic waste, and it's something I feel hypocritical and terrible for.


i-22d0fd48eac5c1c79c649225649356d5-IMG_0871-thumb-250x187-47603.jpgLike many other things, scientists can now choose from a vast array of labor-saving, disposable kits and gadgets for doing experiments in molecular biology. It is possible to do everything in washable, reusable glass test tubes with reagents made from scratch, but kits with disposable tubes and pre-mixed chemicals can save hours a day, time that adds up when you're a grad student. One of the kits we use the most in synthetic biology is Qiagen's miniprep kit that allows you to extract and purify DNA from bacteria. These kits come with disposable tubes for each DNA extraction that become the limiting reagent for doing minipreps, and we end up with dozens of plastic bottles full of chemicals left over once the tubes run out.

There are simple techniques to clean the columns for reuse up to ten times, methods that were the subject of a short paper in BioTechniques in 2007. By simply soaking used columns in dilute (0.1-1M) hydrochloric acid for a while, then washing and rinsing them in distilled water a few times, the columns are clear of DNA that could interfere with future experiments and ready to be reused. We're starting to roll this out in our lab now thanks to the efforts of one of my amazing colleagues, Karmella Haynes, and hopefully it can spread to other labs as well.

This is just one really simple way to save money and drastically reduce plastic waste coming out of molecular biology labs, and similar plastic-saving techniques can be used for other common lab consumables--pipette tips, petri dishes, culture tubes. As researchers we can work towards making a more sustainable world sustainably, in the lab and at the office just as we can at home--by buying and using less, reusing more, and working towards designing new ways to do things that are really sustainable, not by buying things that are "green" and celebrating the earth once a year.

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Photosynthesis needs only sunlight and water? Jean Baptista van Helmont (the father of biochemistry), who performed the first recorded quantitative biological experiment back in the 1600's, thought this was the case. He also discovered carbon dioxide, which later investigators have found to be involved in photosynthesis big time.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 23 Apr 2010 #permalink

Yes, good catch! :) I was thinking in terms of resources (renewable vs. non-renewable) and no one really worries about where we're going to get enough CO2! Photosynthesis gets its carbon atoms from carbon dioxide in the air instead of from sugar (for example) and that's part of the reason why it's so attractive as a way to produce energy.

Love this post! I have felt really hypocritical about the staggering amount of plastic (and other) waste that I can generate in a single day, especially when many of the disposables that we create need to go through elaborate pre-treatment and disposal measures before reaching their final destinations (further adding to the scientific footprint). I am also fairly annoyed with the general scientific culture that endorses such a disposable approach, as it seems like the people making claims on being perhaps the best informed in matters related to climate change should have a slightly more responsible approach to the whole issue. This doesn't even get into the staggering amount of electricity that we use in operating our equipment, most of which seems to be decidedly energy-hungry. Bah.

Awesome, pulling the curtain back! Saves money too, those Quiagen kits are $1+ a pop.

I really object to this kind of simplistic analysis, that because things are âdisposable, that necessarily they have a higher environmental impact than things that are non-disposable. I think that if a real analysis was done, that many disposable items actually have a lower environmental impact than the non-disposable items they replace.

In the case of disposable medical equipment, the main reason for using it is that it is safer with less risk of infection following reuse. How many infections have to be prevented to justify using disposable equipment compared to reusable equipment? In something like disposable needles, the labor to collect, clean, sterilize, and store greatly exceeds the cost of a new disposable needle that is known to be sharp, sterile, the right size, compatible with the syringe, and not plugged. You really have to include the environmental cost of the labor in any real environmental analysis. Once you do that, I think the environmental cost of the labor is more than the savings.

In the picture, you show disposable centrifuge tubes made of polypropylene, pipette tips, petri dishes. The main reason disposable plastic items are used is to prevent contamination. That is the same reason that one uses highly purified water instead of tap water. It is possible to go to reusable glass instead of plastic, but then the glass has to be cleaned, sterilized and stored. There is the risk of breakage and of injury due to cut glass. Glass containers can break if they are dropped, spilling the contents, which if it is a biohazard risks infection and necessitates a biohazard cleanup. For some purposes glass is unsuitable without coatings, those coatings must be tested and renewed when necessary. The glass used in laboratories is borosilicate glass, which is not recyclable along with soda lime container glass.

The environmental cost of the heating and cooling system in the laboratory probably dominates the ecological footprint of most laboratories. If so, then the environmental impact of the high productivity laboratory that uses disposables may be less per scientific finding than the lab that uses labor to recycle equipment rather than doing science.

Thanks for your input, you make a lot of really important points. I think when it comes to medical equipment, the safety of disposable trumps any issues with plastic use. I think there are a lot of really simple ways that labs can reduce the amount of plastic they use in ways that will save money and stuff without a lot of labor or energy (like soaking spin columns in HCl). I know that things are a lot more complicated than just replacing disposable plastic with glass and that there a lot of really tricky issues that will need to be worked out, but I think it's worth working on doing experimental work in a more sustainable way (that includes making better lab spaces with more efficient heating and cooling, equipment that sucks up less power, and a whole bunch of other stuff). Of course moving towards sustainability will also involve thinking about labor and the energy involved in recycling and reusing as well and all of the issues involved can't fit into a one page blog post about DNA spin columns! I think this should be an ongoing conversation though, and we shouldn't assume that there always must be a tradeoff between productivity and sustainability.

One of my lab-mate friends once told me "if you love science you have to hate the environment".

This post of yours is exactly what he meant.