#FEMSmicroBlog: Rethinking sustainability with small steps for big impacts


World Environment Day on 5 June is the biggest international day focusing on the environment and sustainable ways to protect the planet. Since research labs are high consumers of plastic ware for optimal and sterile experiments, researchers and scientists are called upon to do their part to reach the plastic-reducing goals. Patrick Penndorf explains in this #FEMSmicroBlog how microbiology researchers can cut down on their plastic waste, which at the same time can cut material costs. #MicrobiologyEvents

What sustainability is about

A sustainable approach aims to reduce our footprints while harvesting benefits for research. But sustainability extends beyond mere environmental concerns; it encompasses economic, scientific, societal and even mental aspects.

Often, reducing expenses for consumables, decreasing the frequency of mistakes due to heightened engagement with protocols or reducing dependency on supply chains during crises, are perks unlocked through sustainable action.

This counts beyond plastic waste. Certain chemicals can dramatically increase the safety of researchers, and operating machines properly, even with simple actions such as closing hoods, will not only save energy costs but also assure less downtime due to clogged filters.

Sustainable practices in a research lab

In essence, all lab-based researchers should rely on three crucial principles when it comes to sustainability: reduce, reuse, recycle. This means to consider where you can reduce the use of single-use plastics. If that’s not feasible, identify opportunities to reuse them. And if reusing is not possible, properly discard them for recycling.

Considering entire life cycles is often crucial. For instance, a recent study found that reusing commonly utilized consumables for mammalian cell and bacterial culture can reduce the CO2 footprint upon recycling up to 11-fold. Or did you know that choosing the right kind of well plate can reduce its carbon footprint by almost 70%?

To give you an idea of what every scientist can do in their routine, here are some examples:

1. Consciously choose materials that precisely suit your sample volumes. For example, a 30µl DNA mix can be prepared in a PCR microtube instead of a 1.5ml tube. By the same token, using a 15mL instead of a 50mL tube reduces the amount of plastic waste by approximately 50%.

2. Arrange your pipetting order so that you handle the most “universal” solvents (that do not cause contamination or carry-over) first. Applicable to essays or PCR preparation but also when mixing an SDS-PAGE gel, consider adding water first, followed by Tris-buffer and then Acrylamide. Using the same pipette for all three solutions can save up to 63% of the total preparation’s waste.

3. When preparing solutions that are eventually mixed, consider preparing them in a single tube instead of two. For instance, solutions such as a supplemented medium might be possible to prepare right away in culture plates.

4. Consider reusing tubes for commonly used solutions or rinse consumables to reuse them. For example, cuvettes to measure density can easily be reused after rinsing.

5. If possible, discard non-contaminated plastics separately, and be mindful of the type of plastic used for your consumables. Different types of plastic are differentially recyclable. For example, polypropylene well-plates are more environmentally sustainable than well-plates made of polystyrene.

Adopting a sustainability mindset

Certainly, there are many other actions one can take. Consider sustainability as you would go about optimizing a protocol— from various angles and step by step. Experiment to find what works best, control changes, and generate new, innovative ideas based on what seems feasible. It’s your experiment, your chance for efficiency — no pressure, no guilt, no risk.

It is important to find actions that suit one’s possibilities. Some need a specific product, while others might have alternatives from other providers available. For the latter, it might be possible to change procurement strategies, choosing alternatives with less or even biodegradable packaging.

My last recommendation is to remember that embracing sustainability is a gradual adaptation. It’s not a single battle but an opportunity to reduce our footprint and protect our oceans and environment through optimization. Happy World Environment Day!


About the author of this blog

Patrick Penndorf is a scientist from Germany with a background in Molecular Medicine. He started to come up with sustainable protocols for his experiments during his Bachelor’s thesis. His passion then developed further and now he is part of an initiative called ReAdvance. Their goal is to help scientists make research practices and the scientific environment more sustainable, for which they develop and disseminate greener protocols, labware and research approaches.



About this blog section

#TheCulturePlate posts on the #FEMSmicroBlog aim to bring science closer to different audiences and to tell more about the scientific or personal journey to come to the results.

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