Sustainability in the Laboratory: Small Changes Can Add Up
The word sustainability is often used in today’s world, and companies are spending significant time and effort to become more sustainable. Laboratories are no exception.
It is well known that laboratories use large quantities of plastic consumables and disposables. In the lab, plastics offer shatter-proof, durable, lightweight, and single-use products that help reduce cross contamination and are easy to use.
Moving toward sustainability in the laboratory can be challenging. Standard operating and experimental procedures are common, and procedures are repeated day in and day out. Scientists may not be open to changing the products they are accustomed to using.
Sustainability as it relates to plastic consumables generally defaults to a discussion about recycling. Can the product be safely recycled? Is the lab structured to make recycling convenient? Although important, recycling is not the only consideration. One question not often raised is, “How can we reduce the amount of plastic we use from the start?”
In its overall waste management strategy, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has developed a Waste Management Hierarchy that shows source reduction as most preferred, followed by material reuse and, finally, recycling. Simply put: reduce, reuse, recycle. The order is important — the greatest impact is the reduction in overall use.
One example of reducing overall plastic consumption in the lab is the use of flexible sampling containers rather than rigid plastic. Whirl-Pak sterilized sampling bags were developed more than 60 years ago to transport liquid milk samples to the lab. Today, this flexible package is recognized as the “Gold Standard” in a multitude of industries across more than 75 countries. Not all industries have embraced this sampling format because habits can be hard to change.
However, the water industry is ready for a change in sampling procedures. Of the hundreds of millions of water samples collected annually in the U.S., the majority are placed in rigid, single-use plastic containers. On average, production of these rigid containers uses five to 10 times the plastic needed to produce a comparably sized Whirl-Pak bag.
Nasco Sampling embarked on an evaluation of the environmental impact of our Whirl-Pak 120mL and 500mL sterile sampling bags compared to the standard rigid plastic containers used for water sampling. The evaluation was performed using EcoImpact-Compass software, widely used in the packaging industry for lifecycle assessments. A lifecycle assessment characterizes the impact associated with sourcing, manufacturing, distributing, using, and disposing of a given product. The full-cycle evaluation offers data about packages that may have a lower environmental footprint, which allows you to make better sustainability decisions.
This study compared linear low-density polyethylene (LLDPE) Whirl-Pak bags to rigid containers made from polypropylene (PP), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), and high-density polyethylene (HDPE). Environmental impact variables included fossil fuel use, greenhouse gas emissions, and water use. Similar results were observed for both the 120mL and 500mL containers. The results for 120mL containers are detailed here.
The study was based on shipping one million containers 1,000km. The data were segregated by material usage, manufacturing, transport, and end-of-life categories. In all product comparisons, the Whirl-Pak sterilized sampling bag was significantly more sustainable than the three common rigid containers used for water sample collection. Less fossil fuel use, lower greenhouse gas emissions, less water usage, and an overall lower environmental impact were observed throughout the entire lifecycle with the use of Whirl-Pak bags.
Although Whirl-Pak bags offer a sustainable alternative, costs also influence decision making, and budgetary constraints can limit even the most highly motivated lab manager. For flexible sampling solutions like Whirl-Pak bags, the container itself can help reduce overall costs, and additional savings may be realized for shipping, storage, and waste disposal costs. Savings can be further magnified if you are required to ship internationally or over long distances.
When developing a sustainable approach in the laboratory, focus on small yet meaningful changes that can make a measurable impact. Replacing rigid plastic sample collection containers with flexible solutions like Whirl-Pak bags can be the beginning of a journey toward a more sustainable work environment.
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