This year, the UK will host the 26th UN Climate Change Conference, an opportunity for heads of state, climate experts and negotiators to come together to agree on coordinated action to tackle climate change.

Climate change is here and it’s not slowing down. In 2020, a study revealed that the Amazon is racing towards the pivotal point where it switches from a rainforest to a savannah.

But what does the Amazon have to do with cancer research? Waste.

Labs and research institutions have been found to be responsible for a huge amount of physical waste, and a large expense of energy resources.

The idea of tackling these huge problems can often feel overwhelming. And sometimes, the positive effect of one person can seem lost in all the noise. But there are things that labs, scientific institutions, and the individuals working at these places can do to reduce the impact.

We spoke to 3 researchers working in Cancer Research UK labs and trials across the country, who are taking the problem into their own hands.

How many whales?

Labs are a whir of activity, innovation and lifesaving knowledge. But they’re also huge producers of waste, and until recently, may have slipped under the radar as a target of environmental responsibility.

By the end of the day in a lab, a whole heap of bottles, pipettes, pipette tips and gloves, to name just a few, can end up as waste.

Studies have tried to estimate the plastic waste produced by the scientific research industry. In 2015, researchers at the University of Exeter weighed the plastic waste accumulated by their bioscience department’s plastic waste over the year. From this figure they extrapolated that globally, biomedical and agricultural labs could be accountable for 5.5m tonnes of plastic waste.

To put that into context, it is the equivalent weight of approximately 27,500 blue whales.

So, the question remains, is there a way to reduce waste in labs without compromising the research?

A plastic problem

Sally Fletcher studies changes to specific enzymes in the development of stomach cancers at the University of Birmingham, but was elected Sustainability Lead at the Institute of Cancer and Genomic Sciences last year. “Very high on people’s concern, at least from a day-to-day basis, is the amount of single use plastic that we have and there are certain things you can do to reduce the waste.”

Sally’s working to set up a system to make sure that this waste can be appropriately recycled, something that Sam Littler put in place early last year at our Manchester Cancer Research Centre (MCRC).

Sam, who’s work focuses on ovarian cancer, describes a similar problem of mounting piles of plastic after a day in the lab. But there’s a fix – with the plastic that can be recycled, it’s simply about a change in practice, and ensuring plastic is washed out 3 times.

“It took a few months to get people to really think and get that ingrained. But we had a technical officer for the building who was also on board and he implemented information on recycling of plastic waste into his lab inductions. So for new people that were coming through, that really cemented it into their mind that this is the way it’s always been.

“So it was actually trying to tease the bad habits out of the people that have been working at the MCRC for a while. They have got so used to just throwing it [media plastic bottles] into clinical waste.”

After the initiative was set up, Sam says it encouraged a whole load of new conversations. “But also, I think with things like the David Attenborough documentaries and Liz Bonnin discussing plastic waste in the media, I was suddenly having conversations with people at work who I didn’t realise were equally enthusiastic about green stuff.”

And as well as recycling their work products, Sam and her team managed to secure a pot of money from the University of Manchester to buy Terracycle bins, which have allowed them to recycle their plastic snack wrappers. “After 3 months, we showed MCRC users that we were able to fill two, eight or nine litre bins, full of crisp and snack wrappers.”

Reusing and reducing

But recycling is not the only green route for plastic waste. Reusing and repurposing are also good options.

As Sam explains, this was the case for the large plastic bags that contain their labs Eppendorf tubes. Eppendorf’s are these tiny vials that we use every day, and they come in these big, massive plastic bags, but they can’t be recycled because they’re the wrong type of plastic.”

As part of the celebrations for World Cancer Day at the beginning of last year, Sam helped to organise a session at the MCRC where a group of students from the local primary school were invited to produce Ecobricks out of these large plastic bags, which would eventually make a greenhouse for their school.

It’s a laborious process, as you have to cut the plastic up into little strips and just stuffed them into two litre plastic bottles, like Coca Cola bottles, explains Sam.

So all these year 4 kids came in and we taught them how to make these Eco bricks. It was a good opportunity to encourage the kids to use their creativity and educate them about how much plastic we use in the lab and how we are trying our best to reduce it. But also, about what we can do to repurpose the stuff that we can’t reduce or recycle, we can try to do something quite cool, like build a greenhouse.

Sam Littler gave an impact talk to the local primary school.

It’s not just labs that are a huge source of plastic waste. Cristiana Goncalves is a research nurse and works on Cancer Research UK funded clinical trials at Southampton hospital. Cristiana has been working to repurpose medical supplies that would otherwise go to waste.

The way the trials are organised is that even before we start recruiting patients for the trial, so even before the trial is officially open, the sponsor and the trial teams responsible for the trial forward lots of kits to each site running the trial,” Cristiana explains. “So, each visit that the patient attends for the trial, we have a kit box. Inside that box, we have needles, tubes, gauzes, plastic bags, urine samples and more.”

These kits are essential to the incredible work that Cristiana and her colleagues do. “But what happens is that the pharmaceutical companies are very keen, and they send, for example, 15 kits for each visit, when probably we will only recruit 2 patients. So, you can imagine the waste that that will be produced because of that.”

Initially the clinical trials team was told that when a trial closes, to dispose of the remaining kits. But instead, Cristiana and her team sit down and separate everything out to either be recycled or reused – everything from needles to lab equipment.

The process is extremely time consuming. “It takes hours, every time, but obviously it makes sense to do it. You don’t want to be saving the people and destroying the world whilst you’re doing it.”

Energy saving tips

For Sally, as well as reducing plastic use, there is a real push to save energy in the labs. “At the moment, there’s quite a drive across our institute to persuade people to change the temperature of their freezers, because that’s one way to definitely make a dent in reducing and reducing the amount of electricity that we’re using as an institute,” she says.

“Our ultra-low freezers are where we store our samples, but there’s plenty of evidence that suggests that you don’t need to put it at minus 80. You can keep it at minus 70. And if you do that, there’s lots of approximate statistics about how much energy you save by doing that. And it’s enormous, really.”

Sally’s lab have already implemented the new policy and are encouraging other labs at the Birmingham Institute to do the same.

There has been some hesitancy to change freezer temperatures as people worry about the quality of their samples. But following the success of the changes in their lab, Sally remains hopeful. “I think most will get on board with I think they just need they just need nudging in the right direction.”

‘It’s not easy being green’

Traditionally, building sustainable practices in science and medicine hasn’t been easy. It’s a balancing act.

“There were certain things we will never be able to change I don’t think. People are always going to grow cells on plastic dishes and they’re going to bin them once they’ve used them, Sally comments. Instead, it’s always about kind of improving what we can do.”

Cristiana agrees. The plastic is a necessary waste, to be honest. But if we can, then whenever possible, we should try to compensate that necessary waste.”

For Sam, it’s about encouraging the enthusiasm that people have for the planet outside of work, into the lab. “When you come into a lab space the “recycling rules” change. Like it’s just a completely different world. But it’s just about incorporating what we might do at home, back into the lab.

And while everyone can play their part, Sam emphasises the importance of the big companies and suppliers recognising their role. It’s really the people at the top that need to start implementing change too, but we as the consumer have a lot of power in asking for this change.

Although it might be a challenge, these 3 researchers are extremely positive about what can be achieved. And with the next generation of environmentally conscious researchers coming into the industry, the future is looking green.


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