Lab Manager | Run Your Lab Like a Business
Pipette tips sitting in a microplate
iStock, SKLA

Reducing Lab Plastic and Reagent Waste

Advanced technology, reuse, and reduction can be combined to make labs more sustainable

Mike May, PhD

Mike May is a freelance writer and editor living in Texas.

ViewFull Profile.
Learn about ourEditorial Policies.
Register for free to listen to this article
Listen with Speechify

Science labs produce gigantic volumes of waste that is often far from being environmentally friendly. In particular, sample preparation can be a crucial creator of plastic and reagent waste. 

No one knows just how much waste is created specifically by sample prep, but it’s likely increasing. As Nicole Kelesoglu, editor at, explains, “Comprehensive data on global plastic and reagent waste streams associated with sample prep isn’t available, but we do know that biological analyses, particularly molecular workflows, have scaled up and scaled out.”

To address these issues, scientists must create similar scale in the battle to reduce plastic and reagent waste without sacrificing quality. “Everyone wants reliable and efficient sample prep methods for downstream analyses,” Kelesoglu says, “but no one wants these methods to generate pollution.”

Unfortunately, no one-approach-fits-all solution exists for reducing waste in sample prep. As Scott Grant, senior director of programs at My Green Lab, says, “There is no single answer that works for all labs so each must review the techniques that they can implement.”

Starting at the source

When it comes to plastics used in sample prep, better solutions start at the source. “Lab-grade, single-use plastics are made with fossil fuels that often become biohazardous, non-biodegradable waste streams,” Kelesoglu says.

One improvement could come from more environmentally-friendly source material. For example, some manufacturers now offer things like pipette tips made from largely biobased plastics. 

Alternatively, scientists can pick products that are reusable. “There has been a revival in reusable glassware and plasticware,” Kelesoglu says. “In certain cases, it can replace single-use plastic.” 

In some situations, sample prep might even be reworked to cut out the need for plastic. As an example, Kelesoglu mentions that acoustic handlers that skip tips altogether reduce plastic in high-throughput scenarios.

When most scientists think of more sustainable uses of plastic, recycling probably comes to mind. This sounds like a great idea in theory, but it’s largely failed in practice. In discussing plastics in general, the consulting firm McKinsey & Company noted that “currently only 16 percent of plastics waste is reprocessed to make new plastics.”

Unfortunately, no one-approach-fits-all solution exists for reducing waste in sample prep.

Despite the dismal data, Grant sees at least two ways around the problem. First, he says, “work with a company that maintains a closed-loop system for recycling and reusing plastics.” Second, he encourages labs to look for products made from compostable polymers.

Reducing reagents

Beyond the use of plastic, sample prep usually requires various grades of reagents, which can be just as problematic. Many reagents become toxic chemical-waste streams, and disposing of them is costly and carbon-intensive,  Kelesoglu explains. 

The easiest way to reduce reagent waste is to use less. According to Kelesoglu, material volumes per sample can be reduced upfront. Miniaturizing protocols provide one approach. “For example, even relatively lower throughput bench preps traditionally performed in microtubes can be moved to multi-well plates,” Kelesoglu explains.

Some manufacturers offer sample-prep platforms that reduce the need for reagents. For instance, the use of microfluidic-based devices requires far lower levels of reagents than conventional methods. Other changes in technology can also help. For instance, Kelesoglu says that “enzymatic treatment alternatives to harsh chemistries, solid support substrate choices, and enrichment steps can also reduce hazardous reagent waste volumes from sample prep.”

Even if the volume of reagents required can’t be reduced, the chemicals can be greener. To delve deeper into this topic, chemist Elefteria Psillakis of the Technical University of Crete in Greece and her colleagues described 10 principles of green sample preparation. As part of this strategy, Psillakis and her colleagues encouraged “eliminating, replacing, or minimizing harmful solvents and reagents.”

Pay attention to the packaging

Beyond the plastic tips, reagents, and supplies that a lab buys, the packaging makes up a key component of the waste. As Grant notes, “Roughly 30 percent of plastic resins worldwide are used in packaging.”

Labs can reduce that packaging in various ways. First, a lab manager can consolidate orders for supplies. In addition, Grant encourages labs to “work with manufacturers that have take-back programs for items, such as pipette-tip boxes and packaging.” 

When scientists pay attention to the packaging, the impact can go beyond a lab. “Buying sustainably packaged products really allows manufacturers to see that this is what customers want,” says Ila Summitt, sustainability program manager at My Green Lab. As a result, manufacturers might improve their packaging.

One by one

The expanse of the challenge in reducing sample prep waste may seem daunting, but individual labs can make a difference. As an example, marine chemist Jane Kilcoyne and her colleagues at the Marine Institute in Ireland made a dedicated effort to reduce lab waste. As they reported: “Methods were verified to allow transitions to more sustainable and environmentally-friendly consumables, replacing plastics with paperboard and glass alternatives, leading to a reduction in the consumption of single-use plastics by 69 percent.” They added: “Adoption of green analytical chemistry principles to procurement and preparation of chemical solutions led to a reduction in hazardous chemical waste by ~23 percent.”

Getting your organization's health, safety, and environment teams involved can also spread a goal of sustainability.

Getting started with sustainability

Given this data on waste from sample prep, where does a lab begin to make reductions? “Awareness of this waste is paramount,” Grant says. He suggests that labs “perform a waste audit to quantify the type and quantity of waste.” The lab can then act on that data with guidance from resources like the Sustainable European Laboratories Network and My Green Lab.

Getting your organization’s health, safety, and environment teams involved can also spread a goal of sustainability. “Let them know that, as a lab member, you’re concerned about the company’s environmental impact,” Summitt suggests, “or start a ‘green team,’ if there isn’t already one.”

Any improvements that a lab can make in reducing waste can make a difference. As Grant says, “All small changes lead to larger changes in both waste reduction and the laboratory culture.”