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Can Scientists Do Away With Single-Use Plastics From Labs in India?

Can Scientists Do Away With Single-Use Plastics From Labs in India?

As one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, India has increased its public spending significantly in the last decade, but on the flip side of this happy growth story is a steep environmental cost. In 2017, the Central Pollution Control Board announced that India generates around 26,000 metric tonnes of plastic waste per day; this amounts to 1.6 million tonnes of plastic waste in a year, 40% of which remains uncollected.

This unrecycled waste causes immense harm to the environment and exacerbates already extensive water and soil pollution. India is not the world’s biggest plastic producer but tops the list of countries for the most inadequately managed plastic.

In 2016, the Government of India introduced the Plastic Waste Management Rules. Subsequently, commercial entities began to charge their customers for plastic bags. Today, several retail outlets and supermarkets provide reusable cloth bags for a price, increasing the customer’s incentive to bring their own bags while shopping. The food delivery company Swiggy introduced an option to opt out of receiving cutlery, and some restaurants partnered with Swiggy deliver their food with wooden spoons and paper straws. E-commerce giants like Amazon and Flipkart have also said they will eliminate the use of single-use plastics for packaging by 2021.

All these changes were widely reported but one that wasn’t but deserved to be was the use of single-use plastics in research labs. On September 17, 2019, the journal eLife floated an initiative called #LabWasteDay, asking scientists on Twitter to identify the amount of plastic waste they produced in a single day, post a picture of the waste and indicate how much it weighed. The amount of waste in the responses ranged from 250 g to 6 kg per day.

In 2015, scientists at the University of Exeter estimated “the 280 bench scientists in [their] bioscience department generated roughly 267 tonnes of plastic in 2014”. They also figured there are around 20,500 biological, medical or agricultural research institutions across the world that together produce 5.5 million tonnes of plastic waste in a year – equal to about 83% of the plastic recycled worldwide in 2012.

India has close to a hundred research institutions, each of which has multiple research labs that use single-use plastic to conduct experiments.

Single-use plastic waste generated from a single day of working in our lab. Photo: Leeba Ann Chacko

Given what we know about research-generated plastic waste, our lab decided to reduce our overall plastic consumption and so reduce the amount of waste. We evaluated the single-use plastic we use and replaced them with reusable alternatives wherever possible. Here’s a quick description of our four biggest savings.

1. From single-use plastic Petri-dishes to reusable glass dishes

Single-use plastic Petri-dish from Tarsons:

* Catalog number: 460091

* Cost: approx. Rs 9/plate

Reusable glass Petri-dish from Sahyadri Scientific Innovations:

* Catalog number: 268.2008.04

* Cost: approx. Rs 175/plate

A plastic Petri-dish (left) and a reusable glass Petri-dish. Photo: Leeba Ann Chacko

A Petri-dish is a transparent container that biologists use to culture microorganisms like bacteria, fungi and small mosses. Plastic Petri-dishes are convenient, cheap, sterile and sturdy. Our lab used nearly 40 plates at any given time to maintain live yeast strains and each plate was replaced once a month. This amounts to 480 plastic plates used and discarded every year just to maintain the yeast strains. In addition, tests involving the deliberate breeding of two different microorganisms require a lot more plates.

We figured that a better alternative is to use glass Petri-dishes. They are breakable and need to be handled with care. We also need to wash these plates and autoclave them to ensure they’re sterile. The glass plates also cost more than the plastic ones but since they are reusable, they are more economical in the long run.

2. From single-use plastic loops to a reusable metal loops

Single-use plastic loop from Tarsons:

* Catalog number: 920051

* Cost: approx. Rs 10/loop

Reusable nichrome metal loop from HiMedia Laboratories:

* Catalog number: LA650–1X8NO

* Cost: approx. Rs 80/loop

A single-use plastic loop (left) and a reusable nichrome loop. Photo: Leeba Ann Chacko

An inoculation loop is a simple tool that microbiologists use to pick up and transfer small amounts of microorganisms from one place to another. Single-use plastic loops are convenient because they don’t need to be sterilised; they come in sealed plastic packages. There are more than 40 live yeast strains in the lab and each of these strains is handled using a loop. And after a plastic loop has been used, it is discarded. So for a single experiment, scientists use close to 15 loops; in a year, thousands of loops are used and trashed.

We decided to switch to a reusable nichrome metal loop that’s easy to reuse, and can be sterilised with a flame (the nichrome wire resists deterioration with repeated heating/cooling cycles). This way, we don’t generate any loopy plastic waste at all.

3. From single-use plastic cell spreaders to reusable glass spreaders

Single-use plastic L-shaped spreader from Tarsons:

* Catalog number: 920081

* Cost: approx. Rs 11/spreader

Reusable glass L-shaped spreader from Sahyadri Scientific Innovations:

* Catalog number: SSI0016

* Cost: approx. Rs 50/spreader

A single-use plastic spreader (left) and a reusable glass spreader. Photo: Leeba Ann Chacko

A cell spreader is a simple tool that microbiologists use to smoothly spread microorganisms (in our case, bacteria and yeast) out on a culture plate, such as a Petri-dish. Plastic spreaders are convenient because, like the loops, they come sterilised and sealed in packets. And like the single-use plastic loops, plastic spreaders must be discarded the moment they’re used.

We transitioned to glass spreaders that we keep sterile by dipping them in ethanol and placing them over a flame until all organic matter has been burned off.

4. From single-use plastic cups to reusable cups

As a lab, we take at least one tea break a day and the closest canteen provides its hot beverages in paper cups coated with a membrane of polyethylene to render them waterproof. These cups are not recyclable like paper or cardboard are, and end up in landfills along with other plastic waste. To help, each lab member now uses a reusable coffee cup.


Reusable instruments are costlier than their single-use counterparts made of plastic, but they make up for it by requiring replacement much less often. Photo: Leeba Ann Chacko

For now, completely eliminating plastic in labs is difficult because the use of single-use plastics significantly reduces incidents of contamination, such as in studies related to cell culture. Nevertheless, we have been able to identify instances where we could switch plastic materials with glass and metal ones without compromising the quality of the experiments.

By implementing these changes, we have significantly reduced the amount of single-use plastic labware, and in turn reduced the amount of plastic waste coming out of our lab. We haven’t completely solved the problem, of course, but we have made a start.

Leeba Ann Chacko is a junior research fellow in the Cytoskeleton and Motors Lab at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru.

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