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Barriers to laboratory sustainability


From my brief experiences in a university research laboratory, I became aware of the ability of a busy and highly productive biomolecular lab to generate a lot of normal and hazardous waste, use a lot of energy and are not actually working in a sustainable manner. After researching this topic, I concluded this could be said for most biomolecular labs. In terms of resource needs, energy usage, and trash output, research laboratories have a significant influence on the environment. Single-use plastic is also a hot topic these days, with global initiatives underway to clean up the seas of plastic debris. However, many analytical techniques can not rely on recycled plastic for specificity and contamination reasons. Plastics which are better for the environment while still being of a high-quality standard are starting to be seen in the form of Bioplastics.

Disruption of leachables from disposable plasticware

In biomolecular laboratories all over the world, disposable plastic ware is used. While much of this plastic is branded as “sterile,” providing researchers with some confidence that the products are free of bioactive contaminants, we now know that processing additives are unavoidable. Yet these chemical substances leaching out of plastic consumables or ‘leachables’ are still underestimated in the majority of life sciences applications. From carrying out my 4th year research project in a biomolecular lab I became very aware of how laboratory experiments can be influenced by various factors. From accidentally adding a fraction of a µL to much or too less, to forgetting to work under the fume hood I learned that a laboratory workplace is a very sterile place with little room for error. Contaminants that are bioactive Leaching out of consumables is often overlooked as a critical factor that can affect experimental results. Leachables are thought to have a variety of specific and general biological effects, making them a potential source of error in many assay systems (Rafal Grzeskowiak, 2015). The well-known company Eppendorf is a leading life science company that develops and sells instruments, consumables, and other services to laboratories worldwide. In a paper published by them in 2015 which can be accessed here ‘’ they describe leachables as chemical compounds that can be released into a sample from a given consumable under specific laboratory conditions. The effects of leachables are particularly relevant for plate-based assays, where a lot of variation in leachable levels have been observed in different wells, suggesting position dependant influences on the assay. Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is a common tool in most biomolecular labs. PCR is used for the in vitro enzymatic amplification specific segments of DNA and it is a very popular tool for detecting rare sequences. DNA contamination from any sort of leachables can interfere with results or interpretation of sensitive assay analysis. Most of the consumables we would find in a laboratory consist of polymers manufactured from petrochemical-based monomers, most notably are polypropylene, polyethylene and polystyrene.

Rafal et al explained how contrary to belief most of the plastic ware we use in our laboratory’s contain various polymerization by-products beside the pure polymer. Various chemicals are added to reduce production costs but ultimately alter the consumable properties. With the overdue agenda of reducing single use plastic in laboratories will the high standard for plastic ware from the likes of Eppendorf be reduced and will there be a problem with using recycled plastic for PCR reactions. PCR analysis need to reach very high temperatures for denaturing, temperatures can reach up to 95˚C during this stage. Single use plastic that is used for such PCR reactions have to be able to not only withstand these high temperatures but to be able to heat and cool over a long period.  It is unlikely that recycled plastic would be used in these sensitive assay analyses as results could be sabotaged.

Rafal Grezeskowiak carried out a study where he analysed using HPLC (High Performance Liquid Chromatography), UHPLC (Ultra High Pressure Liquid Chromatography) , GC (Gas Chromatography) and MS (Mass Spectrometry) methods the organic substances leaching from standard microcentrifuge tubes from different manufacturers into samples after incubating under typical assay conditions with water. He was able to identify high amounts of organic substances migrating into samples, Fig1 shows the identified polypropylene additives including nucleating agents and antioxidants.  

Fig 1. Identification and quantification of extractables in samples incubated in microcentrifuge tubes.(Rafal Grzeskowiak, 2021).

So, should we consider what the possibilities are to produce lab-grade plastics from recycled material? When dealing with recycled plastics it can be very difficult to determine the precise origin of the material or the contaminants that may be present. In William van Grunsven article he highlights how producers put a lot of effort into purifying plastics during the recycling process, however the purity of the recycled material is much lower than virgin plastics (Hopewell et al., 2009).

Disposable plastics are thought to be more practical and cost effective, because of the nature of toxicity of laboratory plastics, they have long been considered non-recyclable. The current practice of most labs for contaminated cell culture plastics are to bag, autoclave and send them to the land fill. Even plastic test tubes which have only held water are disposed of this way as recycling plants see them as being a health and safety concern(Kuntin, 2018). Many researchers are enthusiastic about recycling single-use plastics, but we are surrounded by disposable plastic in the conventional biomolecular laboratory, which is often not recycled due to biological pollution. There have been many innovations to try and combat this issue, one such idea I found interesting was invented by David Kuntin, a University of York researcher. David made a ‘decontamination station’, a container that allowed for a 16-hour soak in a high-level disinfectant followed by a water rinse for chemical decontamination, as a way to recycle tissue culture flasks (Kuntin, 2018).

For a laboratory to aim to be more sustainable it isn’t always as straight forward as reducing or reusing the plastic ware use in the laboratory. Plastic Petri dishes do not retain their form when autoclaved at high temperatures, making it impossible to reuse them without risking contamination(Alves et al., 2021).Often glass pieces can be decontaminated by autoclaving and reused without the use of a chemical decontamination station. When centrifuging samples glass culture may not be suitable, and when conducting tissue culture procedures that require non-pyrogenic and non-cytotoxic materials reusable glass substitutes will not be able to meet these requirements.

A Sustainable-Lab Consumables Guide has been developed by University College London, which highlights all of the improvements that research laboratories may make to become more sustainable, you can find this guide here Sustainable Lab Consumables Guide | Sustainable UCL – UCL – University College London.

How to use plastic more sustainable in the lab

As researchers we need to become better informed about what plastics we can use which hinder experiments but are also environmentally friendly. We need to become aware of the most commonly recycled plastics which are polystyrene (PS), polypropylene (PP) and high density or low density polyethylene (HDPE/LDPE). PP is used for popular consumables like centrifuge tubes, while PS is used for culture dishes and flasks. Lids are most often made of HDPE and LDPE (Kuntin, 2018). An interesting programme called LEAF (Laboratory Efficiency Assessment Framework) has been developed at University Collage London (UCL) to improve the sustainability and efficiency of laboratories. This programme offers research laboratories a guide to save plastics, water, energy and other resources. UCL claim that by taking part in this programme laboratories ‘will reduce their carbon emissions and create an environment that supports research quality’. Laboratories then receive a Gold, Silver or Bronze award depending on their sustainability actions. You can find out more information on this programme here .

Problems with single use plastic

with an estimated 20,500 institutions worldwide involved in biological, medical or agricultural research, Urbina et al estimated that in 2014 these institutes likely generated around 5.5 million tonnes of lab plastic waste in 2014(Urbina et al., 2015). This would be the equivalent of 67 cruise liners and 83 percent of all plastic recycled globally in 2012. Single-use plastics (SUPs) are materials designed to be used once and then discarded. In a laboratory, single-use plastic can range from packaging to syringes to beakers. SUPs has many benefits in the lab: it is less expensive, easier to standardise, and often arrives sterile before being used and discarded. SUPs have also been shown to degrade slowly and fracture into small pieces with diameters less than 5 mm, referred to as secondary microplastics (MPs), when exposed to UV rays, heat, or mechanical stress(Chen et al., 2021). Plasticizers such as phthalates or phthalic acid esters (PAEs) are commonly used in SUP products to improve the plasticity of resin molecules, making the plastic more flexible and simple to process(Chen et al., 2021). These PAEs can leach into the natural environment and even enter the public food chain. In Turkey PAEs were detected in four popular drinks (soda, lemonade, cola and mineral water) (Ustun et al., 2015).


According to European Bioplastics, bioplastics are polymers that are generated from renewable sources and biological systems (bio-based) and/or are biodegradable(Samantaray et al., 2020). Bioplastics production is expected to attain a 40% share of the plastics industry by 2030, driven by a low-carbon circular economy (European-bioplastics, 2019). Development of biodegradable and bio-mass derived polymers to replace non-biodegradable and petrochemical-based plastics can be a sustainable step toward a low carbon footprint. Glycolic acid, a polyglycolic acid (PGA) monomer, is currently mostly used as a co-monomer in the production of poly(lactic-co-glycolic acid) (PLGA) copolymers to balance the mechanical strength and biodegradability of polylactic acid (PLA)(Samantaray et al., 2020).PLCA copolymers are a kind of biodegradable polymer recognised by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use in biomedical applications, the use of PGA-based copolymers in fields such as shape memory films, antimicrobial coatings, food packaging goods, and biomedical scaffolds will expand the possibilities for manufacturing high-performance and useful green plastics(Samantaray et al., 2020). These bioplastics have the strength and means of replacing single use plastic in biomolecular laboratories. The bio-based and biodegradable plastic is a niche market with growing popularity, for instance sustainably cultivated seaweeds as feedstocks for biodegradable bioplastics (Helmes et al., 2018). In this project they were able to produce a PLA polymer from Kelp, a raw material for 3D printing, this has intrigued other EU countries into producing sustainable bioplastic (Hasselström et al., 2020). The concept of reducing, reusing and recycling is the framework around the circular economy, the use of bio-degradable plastics over single use plastics should be promoted and invested in by influential government and private bodies.  

Fig 2. This figure compares the impact of Bio-based polymers on the environment compared to non-biodegradable petroleum-based polymers. (Meereboer et al., 2020).


As a concluding remark we as researchers need to think of the plastic we are using, I would like to encourage all research scientists, to consider how they might limit the quantity of single-use plastic objects used in their daily research. This obviously is not possible in all cases as recycled or bioplastic may not meet the standard of quality needed.  Continued research and development into bio-based biodegradable polymers could be very beneficial to reducing the single use plastic in biomolecular laboratories and is also critical for a sustainable circular economy that mitigates the harmful effects of conventional plastics on the environment and eco-system.



ALVES, J., SARGISON, F. A., STAWARZ, H., FOX, W. B., HUETE, S. G., HASSAN, A., MCTEIR, B. & PICKERING, A. C. 2021. A case report: insights into reducing plastic waste in a microbiology laboratory. Access Microbiology, 3.

CHEN, Y., AWASTHI, A. K., WEI, F., TAN, Q. & LI, J. 2021. Single-use plastics: Production, usage, disposal, and adverse impacts. Sci Total Environ, 752, 141772.

EUROPEAN-BIOPLASTICS 2019. Bioplastics Market Development Update.

HASSELSTRÖM, L., THOMAS, J.-B., NORDSTRÖM, J., CERVIN, G., NYLUND, G. M., PAVIA, H. & GRÖNDAHL, F. 2020. Socioeconomic prospects of a seaweed bioeconomy in Sweden. Scientific Reports, 10, 1610.

HELMES, R. J. K., LÓPEZ-CONTRERAS, A. M., BENOIT, M., ABREU, H., MAGUIRE, J., MOEJES, F. & BURG, S. W. K. V. D. 2018. Environmental Impacts of Experimental Production of Lactic Acid for Bioplastics from Ulva spp. Sustainability, 10, 2462.

HOPEWELL, J., DVORAK, R. & KOSIOR, E. 2009. Plastics recycling: challenges and opportunities. Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences, 364, 2115-2126.

KUNTIN, D. 2018. How to reduce your lab’s plastic waste The Biologist

MEEREBOER, K. W., MISRA, M. & MOHANTY, A. K. 2020. Review of recent advances in the biodegradability of polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) bioplastics and their composites. Green Chemistry, 22, 5519-5558.

RAFAL GRZESKOWIAK 2015. Leachables: Minimizing the Influence

of Plastic Consumables on the Laboratory

Workflows. Eppendorf AG, Germany.

RAFAL GRZESKOWIAK 2021. Extractables and Leachables in

Microcentrifuge Tubes – Extensive

HPLC/GC/MS Analysis.

SAMANTARAY, P., LITTLE, A., HADDLETON, D., MCNALLY, T., TAN, B., SUN, Z., HUANG, W., JI, Y. & WAN, C. 2020. Poly (glycolic acid) (PGA): a versatile building block expanding high performance and sustainable bioplastic applications. Green Chemistry, 22.

URBINA, M. A., WATTS, A. J. R. & REARDON, E. E. 2015. Labs should cut plastic waste too. Nature, 528, 479-479.

USTUN, I., SUNGUR, S., OKUR, R., SUMBUL, A. T., OKTAR, S., YİLMAZ, N. & GOKCE, C. 2015. Determination of phthalates migrating from plastic containers into beverages. Food Analytical Methods, 8, 222-228.

Ecological restoration as an area of collective action and innovation

The 2021 UN Food Systems Summit is expected to convene this year in September/October. The Food Systems Summit will provide a platform for new actions and innovative solutions for the benefit of food system approaches across the 2030 agenda and also for tackling the challenges of climate change. There are five action tracks for the 2021 Summit, ‘Boost nature-positive production’ is the title of action track 3 and it aims to bring stakeholders together to address challenges and solutions to deliver food production systems that can work for both people and nature. Action tack 3 has a goal to ‘boost nature-positive production systems at scale to globally meet the fundamental human right to healthy and nutritious food while operating within planetary boundaries’ (UN, 2020).

There are three areas of collective action and innovation (ACAIs) stakeholders will work towards for action track 3, they are 1. Protect, 2. Sustainably manage, and 3. Restore. (UN, 2020). Essentially in order to continue the success and deliver the 2030 sustainable development goals we need to restore degraded ecosystems and rehabilitate soil function for sustainable food production. Ecological restoration is needed in areas like these when the degraded ecosystem is unable to self-repair.

Currently across the planet the amount of land considered to be degraded can make up an area larger than south America, this area consists of ~2 billion hectares (UN, 2020). An additional 500 million hectares of land is known to be abandoned, this is wasted land with the potential of being an asset to the environment and the economy. Continuous land degradation not only reduces biodiversity but it brings a significant cost with it, it is thought that the annual cost of land degradation is between 10-17% of global gross domestic product (GDP) (Crossman et al., 2017).

One of the UN’s SDG’s (No. 15) Life on land has a target aiming to achieve land degradation neutrality globally by 2030, the innovation of restoring biodiversity not only fits this target but also several other SDG as can be seen in the illustration below.

Illustration of sustainable development goal no.15 targeting ecological restoration.

Implementation, financing, and regulatory challenges need to be addressed to allow restorative innovations to scale up. We must develop and apply innovative governance mechanisms and financing models to allow us to rehabilitate degraded agricultural land and prevent further unsustainable management practices.  Fortunately, people have become aware of the need to restore and there has been many new approaches developed and strategized for ecological restoration. Three approaches I thought would greatly help towards reaching the goals of Action Track 3 under the innovation to restore are, Sustainable Land Management (SLM), Sustainable Forestry Management (SFM) and Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM). These landscape-scale integrated approaches together aim to aid land and water management while lessening trade-offs.

SLM can be defined as ‘a system of technologies and/or planning that aims to integrate ecological with socio-economic and political principals in the management of land for agricultural and other purposes to achieve intra- and intergenerational equity’ (Hurni, 2000). SLM approaches have been adopted and adjusted to suit different situations however, each approach has the same holistic management of land for improving biodiversity conservation, sustainable rural livelihoods, and food production. SLM include practises to prevent land conversion and protect vulnerable lands, prevent and mitigate land degradation and restore degraded soils, control soil erosion, improve soil-water storage and rehabilitate and sustainably manage dryland environments. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the Unites States (FAO) have been providing technical options suitable for different conditions, on their website you can see some of their completed and ongoing SLM projects

Sustainable Forestry management is a set of practices aimed at dealing with the increasing demands of our growing population while preserving ecological functions of healthy forest ecosystems for present and future generations. With SFM we should be able to ensure sufficient timber production while restoring degraded forests with their plentiful original benefits and values (Crossman et al., 2017). Practices like reducing logging and adopting integrate landscape planning through introducing species has helped ecological restoration as well as climate change mitigation.

The demand on water increases as the world’s rising population depends on it. From household needs, energy, the maintenance of water dependant ecosystems, to ecosystem services, the planets water resources are under enough strain without adding the stresses of climate change, poor management, and pollution. The Global Water Partnership’s definition of integrated water resource management (IWRM) states’ IWRM is a process which promotes the co-ordinated development and management of water, land, and related resources’ (Global Water Partnership 2020). Land under poor management has heightened the risk of water and wind erosion of soils, ultimately affecting the water entering streams and reservoirs. Other factors affecting water quality include fertilizers and pesticides, and poor management of livestock waste. Large influential bodies like the UN have developed task forces to help areas of poor management to indicate, monitor and report (Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) | International Decade for Action ‘Water for Life’ 2005-2015, 2021).  Sufficient water management under the appropriate authorities are important beneficiaries of ecological restoration of degraded landscapes because functioning ecosystems can improve water quality for little cost.

Framework for implementing IWRM strategies.

Restoring degraded ecosystems and rehabilitating lands under poor management to support new or more sustainable food production will reduce pressures to convert natural areas. Under this ACAI 3 to restore, the development and implementation of the innovative and suitable governance mechanisms I have mentioned will contribute to achieving the goals of action track 3 to ’Boost nature-positive production’.


Crossman, N., Bernard, F., Egoh, B., Kalaba, F., Lee, N., & Moolenaar, S. (2017). The role of ecological restoration and rehabilitation in production landscapes: An enhanced approach to sustainable development. Working paper for the UNCCD Global Land Outlook.

Global Water Partnership (2020).

Hurni, H. (2000). Assessing sustainable land management (SLM). Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, 81(2), 83-92.

Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) | International Decade for Action ‘Water for Life’ 2005-2015. (2021).,the%20sustainability%20of%20vital%20ecosystems.

UN. (2020). Action Track 3: Boost Nature-Positive Food Production at Scale.

The food, climate and biodiversity ‘triple challenge’ and one health in the greater Virunga landscape

On the 28th and 29th of October 2020 I joined online with thousands of others from all around the world to watch ‘The Global Landscapes Forum (GLF)’. The GLF are the world’s largest knowledge-led platform on sustainable land use, dedicated to achieving the sustainable development goals and Paris climate agreement. I was truly amazed at the volume and variety of people that tuned in all with different ideologies and cultural backgrounds but with common goals. The GLF have connected 4,900 organisations and 190,000 participants at gatherings worldwide. I tuned into multiple sessions both days, I listened to a woman from Latin America sing a beautiful song about salmon coming back to her local waters because of biodiversity preservation, I was blessed by an Alaskan man who too sang a song blessing all the participants and I also listened to many discussion panels on what we want in the future of; Food security, livelihoods, health renewable materials, energy, biodiversity, business development, trade, climate regulation and water.

One session I found particularly interesting was ‘The food, climate and biodiversity ‘triple challenge’ and one health in the greater Virunga landscape’. As a MSc Agri biosciences student climate change, food security and biodiversity preservation are subjects I am all too familiar with. However, in most cases I am learning about these issues from an Irish perspective and what intrigued me about this session was that I got to hear about these issues from across the globe in the Greater Virunga landscape.

The Greater Virunga Landscape includes Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and ten contiguous protected areas in Uganda and Rwanda. From the beginning of the webinar they approached ‘the triple challenge’ idea where achieving one challenge means we need to achieve all of them. The challenges being 1. Food & diet- Human health, 2. Biodiversity loss- animal health and 3. Climate change- ecosystem health. The triple challenge aims to achieve over the next 30 years to meet the dietary and needs of a growing population, while staying on track to keeping global warming below 1.5˚C and reversing biodiversity.

One of the guest speakers made a serious statement that grabbed my attention, saying that we are at the start of the 6th mass extinction in our planet’s history. I found this scary, but it also made me angry, later finding out that the richest 10% of the world’s population were responsible for 52% of the cumulative carbon emissions in the period of 1990-2005. She also stated that one million species are threatened with extinction globally.

The triple challenge has three goals, 1. Keep global temperature rise this century well below 2˚C and to pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5˚C, 2. By 2030, end hunger and ensure access by all people to safe, nutritious and sufficient food all year round, and 3. By 2050, biodiversity is valued, conserved, restored and widely used. The GLV is a number of connected protected areas in a region that contains more terrestrial vertebrate species and more endemic vertebrate species than any other sire in mainland Africa. The GLV has a large growing human population with some of the worlds highest densities of rural populations characterised by high poverty levels. The GLV’s forested and mountainous nature makes it a transboundary water tower for the entire region, providing millions of people with fresh water for drinking and farming as well as being the highest and most permanent source of the River Nile.

The GLV faces many challenges which impact the species, habitats, connectivity, and the people. Some of these threats include pressure from additional agriculture land and freshwater resources to accommodate the growing rural population, impact of armed conflict in eastern DRC, unsustainable poaching, and illegal trade. Some of the panellists discussed another major challenge in the GLV area which has already caused lasting effects, climate change has caused changes in species movement, increasing rainfall and an increase in temperature and fire frequency. Threats of diseases dangers the health of both wildlife and humans where zoonotic spill-over events of emerging infectious diseases are common, Ebola caused high mortality in this landscape and of course the recent Pandemic of Covid19 has had lasting effects.

Government agencies and NGO’s have achieved some successes, including the widely celebrated increase in mountain gorilla numbers. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) is working to establish a coalition of interdisciplinary NGOs working in the GVL. The idea is that this coalition will come together to develop a people centred GVL strategy for the conservation and sustainable development that will strengthen the progress already made.

Globally the way we currently produce and consume food is resource intensive and is associated with significant negative impacts on public health. While over a third of adults worldwide are overweight or obese, 1 in 9 are undernourished and a third of the food we produce is lost or wasted. It was clear to me there is a huge interest in reaching the goals set out by the triple challenge, the people on the panel were so happy to hear questions from people around the world who like me had never even heard of the GVL. Genuine commitment is critical to addressing the triple challenge while integrating the One health approach and it is events like the Global Landscape Forum that is great for raising awareness of such issues.

My first post

My first post, this is my first of many blog entries I will make as I undertake the MSc in AgriFood sustainability and Tech here in NUIG. So a little about myself, I am 22 years old originally from Cavan, living in Galway. I graduated from NUIG in 2020 where I studied general science. After moving to Galway in 2016 it became my home away from home.

I choose plant and agribiosciences as my main module for final year where I carried out a final year research project titled ‘An investigation into fucoxanthin biosynthesis regulation by light on Phaeodactylum tricornutum‘. By carrying out this project I got the opportunity to meet and learn from many members of NUIG’s agribiosciences team. When I decided that I wanted to further my education by doing a masters I was quick to pick NUIG and a programme involving the agriobioscience team.

About me

My Name is Ronan Halton, I’m 22 years old and I am currently living in Galway. I am originally from Cavan and while I do not come directly from a farming background I grew up heavily involved in my grandfathers and uncle beef farm. I also began working in a piggery while I was in secondary school, Cavan is known for being a big pig production county.

My hobbies include playing for Lacken GFC, my local Gaelic football club back in Cavan. Even though we are only a small parish we have a heavy footballing community with a strong senior division one senior team.

About my study

I am currently enrolled in the MSc AgriFood Sustainability and Technology which aims to generate graduates with the interdisciplinary skills to respond to such challenges and opportunities both in Ireland, and in other leading Agrifood nations worldwide. Modules include (1) AgriFood sustainability & Agri resilience challenges, (2) Understanding Agribusiness & AgriFood market trends, (3)Understanding Irelands Agriculture & AgriFood sector, (4)Food systems, Diets, nutrition & technology,(5) One Health, (6) AgriEngineering, Agritech & Agri informatics,(7) Geospatial analysis and remote sensing and (8) Data analysis for sustainability research.

My goal from the MSc AgriFood Sustainability and Technology is to develop strong and specialized skills and to use it as a basis to pursue my future career.