Lab Trash

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I've been telling you about the perils of plastics, but some of the worst plastics offenders are molecular and cell biologists. Nearly every experiment that we do uses incredible amounts of plastics. In cell biology or molecular biology labs the emphasis is on working sterile, quickly and reproducibly. So companies have been selling all these incredibly useful products to life science labs: sterile plastic tubes of all shapes and sizes, single wrap multi-well tissue culture plates, sterile plastic dishes, sterile pipettes. All these products make it a lot easier to do the required work. I can't even imagine how you could work in a cell culture lab without them, but they do create a lot of waste.

My friend, Eva Amsen, made this video as a creative outlet and to try and raise some awareness of all the disposables in the lab, and give some mild suggestions on how to reduce the pile of trash by a tiny amount. Every bit helps, right?

Lab Waste from Eva Amsen on Vimeo.

Lab Waste was screened at the Imagine Science Film Festival in Brooklyn last night (no, I did not go, I was busy with planning my upcoming relocation!) Here's Eva's blog where she talks about this video, its screenings and recognition its received).

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I've just moved into a new lab, that has one of the best policies on waste I've seen. No plastic loops or spreaders, all the little bottle are glass rather than plastic, and get washed up and then reused. The only plastics we have are pipette tips and plates, and even then we re-use some of the big pipette tips.

The only problem is time really, washing everything up adds extra minutes to protocols and at the end of the day when you're tired, all you really want to do is just dump everything in a bin and go home. I am very impressed with this place though, it's a shame more labs don't try and stick to metal loops/spreaders and glass bottles.

i am a big fan of glass labware, and the plastic pollution angle only makes me prefer glass labware even more! and the metal bacterial loops are far superior to the plastic ones because the plastic ones invariably cut the agar (well, in my hands)

i can't: i am attending the richard dawkins lecture that evening. i think .. have to check the tix ..

Since I blasted that other video it is only fair that I comment on this one as well. The section starting at 2:24 was very well done and I liked both the choice of music and the image selection. Thanks for including the the proper attribution in the video itself!! It is nice to see someone adhering to the spirit of the CC license.

My only dislikes are that the somewhat grating garbage truck noise at the beginning seemed a bit long, and the photo at 0:31 of the spinning centrifuge was a bit vertigo inducing.

By Robert S. (not verified) on 16 Oct 2009 #permalink

OMG! Are saying the unthinkable? That scientists are part of the problem too?

I probably only use one or two pairs of gloves a day in the lab, unless I'm doing something really noxious (or PCR). But for most of my protein work I can use glass, or even wash and reuse plastic 15 & 50 ml tubes for a lot of things. Micro pipette tips and tubes, though, are a huge waste-producer and would be very difficult to clean effectively.

Part of the problem where I work is that autoclaving is *very* inconvenient... it's done part-time be a technician with other duties, and convincing him to put in a load when you NEED it, rather than when it's convenient for him, or he has a full load to put in, is near-impossible. Things sit around for days waiting to be sterilized, literally. So you just grab some sterile disposable pipets instead...

Washing and autoclaving glassware is not without environmental consequence.

Heating the water and generating the steam both use large amounts of (potentially polluting and CO2-generating) energy, and increase the work required of the wastewater treatment facility.

I don't know how to calculate the environmental cost of the plastic trash vs. that of the water and energy usage. It's possible that there is actually very little (or no?) savings to be had by cleaning and sterilizing reusable labware.

And ABM: if you only use 2 pairs of gloves a day, you are probably spreading stuff you don't want on your skin all over the lab. If the gloves have touched something toxic, they should go in the trash before you type on your computer, open a drawer, unlock a door, pick up a pencil, plug in a piece of equipment, unseal a new box of tips, etc., unless you have an all-gloves-all-the-time policy (and take them off only to leave the room, and leave the computer in the lab).

A colleague of mine once secretly spiked the acrylamide with quinine, then took his students on a tour of the room with a blacklight. Quinine everywhere!

Manduca: I suspect ABM manages by re-using gloves, I tend to take mine off to do non-bench work, and then putting them back on again when I hit the bench. The lab where I work also has a VERY strict no-gloves-on-door policy to stop things spreading.

As my toxic things are usually biological toxic things i wash my hands (with gloves on) with ethanol every now and again just incase of contamination. As soon as I touch anything remotely connected with EtBr though, they come off.

I take your point about the autoclave running energy cost etc, but one thing glasswear does not generate is physical trash...which is a major problem here with the lack of landfill space.

Eppindorfs are probably my main waste at the moment, I get through tons of the things.