#FEMSmicroBlog: We need to reduce the energy footprint of microbiology research

25-07-2021

Research labs worldwide produce around 5 million tons of plastic each year which harms the environment and our Planet’s health. While a lot of approaches to reduce, reuse and recycle lab equipment is practised, education for environmental integrity is still lacking. In this #FEMSmicroBlog, Disha Tandon discusses how microbiology researchers should set clear mandates for good lab practices to implement environmental integrity. #TheCulturePlate

 

About the plastic, you use in experiments

Imagine a plate full of plastic delicacies for dinner. Sounds fiction? Well, unfortunately, this is the truth for marine life on the ocean floors.

In Europe, we produce 26 million tons of plastic waste annually. Around 80% of that ends in oceans and around 13.4 million tons of CO2 emissions can be attributed to plastic pollution.

We currently lack alternatives for disposable products to reduce our plastic usage. Of course, ‘reuse, reduce and recycle’ has been the mantra for long and succeeded its purpose. Use of cloth bags instead of plastic for groceries, repurposing non-recyclable plastic for art and recycling PET bottles; these measures come from increased awareness about plastic pollution. But there are a few areas where reuse and recycle is feared to cause more damage than benefit.

One such field is laboratory research in microbial sciences. While microbiology research is essential in this era, the sustainability quotient of this research field lies in the gray area. A single research institute generates around 300 tons of plastic waste annually. This means that one person in an institute of just 300 members produces up to 2 kg of plastic waste per day!

A lab member in a research institute produces up to 2 kg of plastic waste per day!

 

Reuse, reduce and recycle your lab equipment

Several programs exist that aim to recycle their plastic consumables to reduce the burden on the environment. Often it is advised to replace disposable plastic with glass equipment.

While not all plastic equipment can be substituted with glass products in microbiology research, here are some Do’s to reduce your plastic waste in the lab:

  1. Sharing instruments between labs or institutes: It is common practice and followed already by many institutes which do not have enough funds to support research.
  2. Use of pipetting robots: Researchers often use pipetting robots to minimize human error and reduce manual efforts. However, this practice can also help minimize the wastage of resources.
  3. Use of glass flasks, glass test tubes, glass petri plates, glass beads that can be washed, sterilized and autoclaved: Try to use glassware in experiments wherever possible.
  4. Reuse silica spin columns for nucleic acid extraction: Protocols to regenerate silica spin columns were tested. Although there is a risk of contamination, this is still worth trying in less sensitive molecular biology procedures.
  5. Re-use gloves: For tasks like preparing fresh consumables for autoclaving, preparing gels, preparing medium stocks, etc., consider re-using a set of durable gloves.
  6. Reduce your overall experimental waste: Design smart experiments to reduce repetition. Increase biological replicates instead of technical replicates! Target more than one aim in an experiment where feasible!
  7. Minimize your paper usage: Maintain a digital lab notebook instead of paper and keep notes and files digitally. This also helps your overall organization when collecting your data for publication.
  8. Process bulk material: Don’t forget that procedures required for recycle/reuse need energy. An autoclave needs power to work, which in turn generates greenhouse gases. Similarly, cleaning equipment requires the use of harsh reagents that harm the environment, while increased water usage reduces the groundwater index.

Each lab member is taught the good practices to maintain sterility for the success of an experiment. While it is essential to perform microbiology experiments with utmost sterility, there are times when sterility is not necessary to maintain. In the latter case, one could make use of the do’s listed above and contribute to the amelioration of the environment.

 

Scientific integrity should go along with environmental integrity

Even with several measures in place, a considerable amount of plastic waste generated each year can be attributed to research labs. It seems that so far no clear mandates for lab members exist.

microbial science needs more environmental responsibility
By Disha Tandon.

Graduate curriculum usually has a mandatory course on scientific integrity which emphasizes good scientific practices to achieve the highest research quality. Like scientific progress and accuracy, environmental betterment is an essential aspect of research.

Yet, similar training for good environmentally friendly practices in lab research is currently lacking and lectures on environment integrity are rarely a part of the graduate curriculum. Therefore, it is time to implement such courses in all research institutes!

As researchers in microbiology, we should not only understand the importance of our work but also our responsibility for its environmental costs. Even more so, as a society, we need to come up with better, sustainable and affordable solutions to tackle climate change.

As responsible citizens of Earth let’s ponder upon how we can recycle and reuse the reagents for our next experiment!

 

About the author of this blog

Disha Tandon is a doctoral researcher at the Institute für Infektionskrankheiten in the Universität Bern. A computational biologist by training, she has started a second innings in biological sciences by delving into microbiology and immunology in her PhD. She aims to combine her interdisciplinary knowledge to contribute better to the field of gut microbiology. Apart from studying host-microbiota interactions, she loves to watch birds, mollusks and mushrooms while on a walk during her free time.

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