Science Has A Sustainability Problem

Mauricio Urbina was trying to save the planet on the day he realized he was simultaneously destroying it. A biologist who studies the bodies of fish and other sea creatures, Urbina was working on a project to understand what happens to crabs that eat tiny particles of plastic waste thrown out by careless humans. But after one particularly long day in the lab, he looked down and noticed — he was a careless human. A lot of his tools were plastic and would be thrown out after a single use, contributing to the stream of waste packing landfills and polluting waterways. He was working on the solution, but he was part of the problem.

Plastic blood containers

Mauricio Urbina was trying to save the planet on the day he realized he was simultaneously destroying it. A biologist who studies the bodies of fish and other sea creatures, Urbina was working on a project to understand what happens to crabs that eat tiny particles of plastic waste thrown out by careless humans. But after one particularly long day in the lab, he looked down and noticed — he was a careless human. A lot of his tools were plastic and would be thrown out after a single use, contributing to the stream of waste packing landfills and polluting waterways. He was working on the solution, but he was part of the problem.

The process of doing scientific research — even the kind of research dedicated to environmental sustainability — isn’t always environmentally sustainable itself. But even as scientists try to make their profession more green, they’re finding themselves struggling with a problem that’s familiar far beyond the halls of academia: How do you live sustainably when the things you need to live are often, by their very nature, unsustainable?

Across the nation and around the world, scientific laboratories create an amazing amount of plastic waste, consume large amounts of water, create risks from hazardous chemicals and use significantly more energy than other buildings of the same size, said Star Scott, Green Lab Program coordinator for the University of Georgia.

The problem is big enough that it’s sometimes hard to wrap statistics around it. For instance, nobody knows exactly how much plastic waste is generated by labs. The experts I spoke to were unaware of any kind of comprehensive audit. But after his crab-induced revelation, Urbina tried to come up with an estimate. Extrapolating from the quantity of plastic thrown out by his own university’s biosciences department and the number of bioscience research facilities worldwide, he calculated that research could account for some 6 million tons of plastic waste every year — about 2 percent of all the plastics junked annually. And that’s just from biosciences and medical research alone.

Meanwhile, the physical building that a laboratory sits in consumes huge amounts of resources, including five to 10 times more energy than an office building. If half the labs in the U.S. reduced their energy use by 30 percent, it would be equivalent to more 840,000 households going dark, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. That’s twice the number of households in the entire state of Delaware. That’s the scale we’re talking about. “[The scientists are] always blown away by their usage,” Scott said. “They can’t believe the energy, the water, the waste they’re generating.”

There are ways to reduce these impacts, of course. Scientists weren’t always reliant on plastics to do their research. Petri dishes, test tubes, the tiny suction droppers called pipettes — all of that stuff used to be routinely made from glass. After each use, these tools were washed or run through an autoclave, a box capable of sterilizing equipment with high heat. Urbina is an example of a researcher who has swung back toward using washable, reusable glass tools. He’s also training his grad students and undergrads in behaviors that seem obvious but that experts said aren’t done routinely in labs — like shutting off lights or closing air vents when they aren’t in use. Other sustainability programs promote the use of shelf-stable chemicals that allow scientists to store biological and genetic samples at room temperature, reducing the need for energy-sucking industrial freezers. Those changes matter, experts said.

At the same time, much of the waste creation and resource consumption in science happens for very good reasons. This isn’t a situation where you can trim the fat off and end up with a nice steak. The meat is too marbled for that.

Take the plastics problem, for example. While there are certainly labs like Urbina’s, where switching to glass is relatively easy to do, that shift gets harder the more crucial perfectly sterile equipment becomes to your process. Before she became the University of Georgia’s sustainability director, Scott worked in a plant ecology lab where her team threw out maybe 400 plastic test tubes every week. They wanted to reduce their waste but couldn’t get glass clean enough, reliably enough. Any impurity would alter the research.

Or think about the electricity use in labs, much of which comes from the energy-hogging freezers and the fume hoods that pull fresh air into labs and suck potentially toxic gases out. You could make the hoods smaller or use fewer of them, but when you make those choices, you’re making trade-offs with safety in an environment where toxic gases can be a real risk. As for freezers, there are some biological samples, like RNA, that basically have to stay extremely cold if they’re going to be useful. “The truth is that once you’re in the lab setting, there’s not a lot of choices,” said Ilyssa Gordon, a professor of pathology at the Cleveland Clinic and director of the medical center’s Office for a Healthy Environment.

In that way, science faces a microcosm of a larger problem. There really are some easy things we can do to save the Earth — turn off the lights in an empty room, eat a little less red meat, recycle. But those things don’t approach the full scale of the problem. And tackling that full scale, for real-real? Well, it becomes a mess, because the environmental damage we don’t like is deeply embedded in our lifestyles. Even simple-seeming changes like getting rid of plastic drinking straws turned out to be much more complicated when a series of attempted straw bans led to able-bodied Americans discovering that their disabled neighbors viewed the straws not as a waste, but as a necessity.

Scientists haven’t come up with a straightforward solution to this problem, but ongoing efforts to make science more sustainable have highlighted one key fact: Sustainability is an issue that affects the whole system of science — including the suppliers who make the tools and the scientists who use them. That means to fix the problem, scientists will have to work with manufacturers to encourage them to use more sustainable materials; they’ll have to coordinate with city recycling programs to make sure that the stuff they send to a recycling center is actually being recycled; they’ll have to rethink processes of research to see if there are other ways they could get the same results for less waste. You can’t make the lab sustainable without addressing all parts of the system outside the lab, Scott and Gordon told me, any more than you can save the world by changing how things work in only one household.


Maggie Koerth-Baker is a senior science writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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