Single-use consumables are rapidly becoming the norm in many laboratories – so how are we to address a tsunami of plastic lab waste? A snowy find has given Russ Swan a glimpse at a solution…
I picked up a bottle top from a ploughed field, having found it using only the power of my eyes. No fancy detectorist equipment needed, as the melting snow had rinsed the loose soil from its surface to leave it glinting in the later winter sun.
Around the circumference is printed: * DEPOSIT ON BOTTLE * REFUNDABLE *, and in the centre: 3D.
This is refers not to 21st-century rapid prototyping technology, but to the pre-decimal currency of pounds, shillings, and pence. Three pence. Thruppence. Worth all of 1½p in your fancy modern coinage.
Quickly running the artefact through an isotopic dating station in the lab revealed a probable age of 50-70 years. To be technically accurate, the lower age limit was determined by the 1971 date the UK adopted metric money, so it's at least 47 years old. Pre-Brentry. The middle estimate came from an obscure internet forum which suggested the thruppenny deposit was typical of pop bottles of the 1950s.
We think of plastic as being almost indestructible, but this thing is aluminium. It was found in a place that had been a midden – a municipal waste dump – later being absorbed into a large arable field producing wheat and barley. And it survived decades in an acid environment subject to annual ploughing and other mechanical interference. Not bad for a piece of thin metal.
What if it had been plastic? I guess it would have been less damaged, but more damaging. And instead of being an unusual find, it would be one of thousands.
“How much packaging is enough? How many impervious barriers are actually necessary between an item of labware and the outside world, while still preserving integrity and sterility?”
There's no doubt that the tide of indifference has turned against single-use plastics, from the disposable supermarket carrier bag to the overpackaged Amazon mailer.
But you wouldn't know that from a quick glance around many laboratories. How many times a day do you unwrap a disposable plastic item from its disposable plastic wrapping, itself probably part of a larger consignment in which every level is hygienically and antiseptically wrapped in its own polymer membrane?
How much packaging is enough? How many impervious barriers are actually necessary between an item of labware and the outside world, while still preserving integrity and sterility?
In parallel with the problem of overpackaging is the trend towards single-use items, where once the norm was reusability. Have you started using pre-packaged disposable chromatography columns yet? If not, you may start seeing these soon.
A recent report from the USA1 showed that penetration of these items into biopharmaceutical manufacturing had grown from practically nothing in 2010 to 27% today. Why? Because the relatively high cost of the columns and their resins was more than offset by time savings in the lab. The result is higher productivity and better profitability. But all that waste!
On a more mundane level, how do you inoculate a streak plate? The classic method of using a wire spreading loop, carefully sterilising it in a flame between contacts, is becoming a thing of the past. Instead, some protocols demand the use of a new, individually-wrapped, plastic spreading loop for each and every change of streaking direction – three or four loops per plate.
There is the potential to recycle some of this tsunami of plastic lab waste, but how much of it actually is recycled? In any case, recycling takes a significant amount of energy, transport, and other resources.
What are the alternatives? Alternative packaging based on cellulose acetate (Cellophane) is certainly one possibility. Unlike polymer films, this biodegrades. Reusability must be more environmentally sensitive than disposability, but it's not an easy thing to persuade the beancounters at head office about when they see that a few pennies can be saved by being profligate with the plastics.
So there's the answer: just as there is a movement towards putting a cash deposit back on drinks bottles, there should be a deposit on expendable lab plastics. The three old pence on my bottle top equates to about 50p today, allowing for inflation. Slap a 50p deposit on every spreading loop, and on every polyethylene pocket preserving the sterility of a piece of labware, and see how quickly the accountants become environmental converts.
Now, I wonder where I can claim my thruppence back?