Sustainability and laboratories, are they compatible?

The environmental problem: an ironic story

We all know that our planet is in danger due to the amount of waste we have produced (and did not care) over decades. In particular, disposable plastic has become in one of the most used materials in our daily life to the point that it is very difficult to think about of a single day when we do not use any plastic-derived thing. However, we know now that plastic residues can stay in nature for thousands of years, or even more, causing serious damage until they get completely degraded. But here is the irony: Did you know that plastic was invented as a potential solution to several environmental problems? Yes, unbelievable! In fact, one of the motivations to developed synthetic plastic was as a replacement of elephant ivory, so the animals and their natural habitat could be protected.

Nowadays, climate change is one of the major threats to the prosperity of our society and our environment. The main reason for that to happen is our unsustainable lifestyle based on non-renewable material sources which also lead us to accumulating tons of waste that we cannot get rid of. What if we could change that? Scientists are strongly searching for novel alternatives to disposable plastic and for faster degradation methodologies.

Eco-friendly science: my personal story

As a scientist working in sustainable biocatalysis, I started wondering if we are working not only in the right direction, but also in the right manner. We aim to develop pharmaceuticals and other goods (food aromas, fragrances) to improve the wellness of our society by using more sustainable and green strategies. But, aren’t we doing exactly the opposite while working in the lab? Walking around it is easy to see huge amounts of avoidable plastic waste and high energy-consuming equipment working in a non-stop mode, among others. This was an eye-opener which made me think the way we do research needs an urgent change to become into an eco-friendly and responsible place to work.

Unfortunately, not all scientists think that sustainability is a big issue in the lab. Talking to several colleagues, I realized that they do consider sustainability as a major concern at home (generally because of economic costs) but not in the lab. Ok, I agree that some of the plastic consumption is unavoidable. We are continuously changing from one task to another and we need to change our gloves to avoid contamination, we must protect ourselves using single-use masks, we need to replicate experiments in such small volumes that glassware is not a suitable option (i.e. PCR) etc., and obviously we do not want to compromise the results of our experiments. However, we are scientists and thus, we should be able to find a good balance between excellence and eco-friendly science.

What can you do? Small efforts, big changes

Everyone knows “The rule of the three R’s”: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle, so let’s apply it also in the lab! Just simple changes can do a massive change in the preservation of our environment and sometimes also our pocket, this is a win-win!

Reduce the use of disposable plastic.

  • There are some basic materials that we use and will use always in the lab, such as tips and test tubes. When possible, buy bulky packaged items instead of individual packed items.
  • Plastic tubes and bottles that do not require sterility (i.e. buffers), can be washed and reused.
  • Some common and non-hazardous chemicals, such as agarose for gels, can be weighed using always the same plastic boat. You just need to rinse it before the next use.

Switch off lights and equipment.

  • It is very common to see computers and equipment running continuously without a meaningful reason. You can install a timer to remind you to switch it off after you finish your experiments. Often there is an automatic option within the settings of the equipment.
  • Lights are frequently on just by default. Turn off any the light and equipment when not using them.
  • Close the fume/laminar hood when not in use. In 2005, the campaign “Shut the sash” by the Harvard University proved a saving of 240,000 $ and reduced their greenhouse gas emissions by 300 metric tons.
  • Leave your PCR machine running at 10 ºC rather than 4 ºC during the last step.

Use glassware.

Substitute plastic containers by autoclavable glassware for microbiology cultures. Glass is usually more expensive than plastic but also more resistant to deterioration in a long term, so that you will also save money.

Reduce the water consumption.

  • Replace the water baths by bead baths, you will make a big difference in the use of water.
  • If you have to autoclave containers with water that then you do not need, reuse that water for other purposes.
  • Remember to turn off the taps properly. A tap that loses only 1 drop per second, 21 litres per day can be wasted.


  • In case you cannot avoid the use of plastic, dispose it in the proper bin. Contact the specialist of your Institute/Department about getting the waste recycled safely.
  • Set a recycling point in the lab: aluminium bin, glassware bin, plastic bin, carboard/paper bin and general non-recyclable waste.

To learn more about eco-friendly lab initiatives, you can visit My green lab or Labconscious.