Plastics in labs- recycling is not the solution

Adriana Wolf Perez, PhD
2 min readMar 23, 2024

Did you know that academic labs produce over 5.5 million tons of plastic waste each year? That´s the combined weight of roughly 27.500 blue whales. And that´s not even including plastic waste from industry and hospitals.

Photo by The Tampa Bay Estuary Program on Unsplash

What changes related to plastics can you implement in your lab today?

· ~40% of plastic waste stems from packaging, try to buy products in bulk instead of individually wrapped items.

· Start complaining to manufacturers and suppliers if the packaging is oversized and inappropriate for the product. If we don´t communicate this, it will never change.

· Most lab plastic waste is incinerated or made of non-recyclable plastics. However, recycling and reuse is possible through takeback programmes for tip boxes, packaging and non-contaminated gloves (list).

· Start reusing single-use items for non-sterile purposes (plastic decontamination protocol). However, if minor contaminations impact your experiments, reusing plastics isn´t advisable!

· Downsize your plastics: Sometimes there are alternatives with less plastic content that perform the same function.

· Plastic vs. glass: It´s not a black and white story as glass needs a lot of energy to be produced and cleaned, however, for items that you use frequently and don´t break too quickly it could be worth looking into.

Verdict: Recycling is challenging in labs due to health and safety reasons and in spite of the low worldwide average recycling rate of 9%, it is not “the solution”. Hence, try to be a minimalist in the lab: start RETHINKING and REDESIGNING your experiments to REDUCE and REUSE plastics as much as possible.

Disclaimer: This article has been published as a newsletter article at the University of Cambridge. The author decided to make these available to the public to make resources available to help scientists all over the world to conduct research in a more sustainable manner.

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