By David Djenic, Member-at-Large for the GCI
As a biochemistry student in the Green Chemistry Initiative, I’m interested in looking at how to implement the principles of green chemistry in molecular biology and biochemistry labs. While molecular biology labs focus more on studying biological systems and molecules rather than synthesizing new molecules, like in synthetic chemistry, there are still problems when it comes to performing environmentally sustainable research.
Pipette tips and pipette tip racks are major contributors to non-chemical waste in biomedical labs because of the volume of tips thrown out and the lack of recycling programs to deal with tips and racks. Pipette tip racks are commonly used because they reduce the risk of contaminating pipette tips. Pipette tip racks are made of #5 plastic (polypropylene), the same material as yogurt cups, medicine bottles and microwavable containers, making them lightweight and very safe to use .
However, #5 plastics are rarely accepted by curbside recycling programs and are placed in landfills and incinerators instead . The plastic from the empty polypropylene racks take hundreds, if not thousands, of years to degrade .
Biomedical companies have worked in the past 10 years to reduce the amount of waste from pipette tip racks. For example, Anachem, a pipette and pipette tip manufacturing company in the UK, has collaborated with a plastic recycling company to collect racks from qualifying laboratories, ground them down, melt them, and remould into new products . A similar program is run at the Environment, Health and Safety (EHS) division of the National Cancer Institute at Frederick (NCI-Frederick), where, from 2003 to 2006, approximately 8,400 pounds of pipette tip boxes were recycled, saving approximately $7,400 in medical waste contract money .There aren’t many statistics on the waste produced by the pipette tips themselves. But whenever I’m in a biochemistry lab course, the orange bins where used tips are thrown are filled to the brim with pipette tips, microcentrifuge tubes, Falcon tubes, etc. It is more difficult to reduce and recycle tips rather than tip racks because they are heavily contaminated after use. GreenLabs at the University of Chicago offers some interesting suggestions on reducing pipette waste, such as using pipette tip refills, buying pipette tips made from sustainable material, and generally reducing pipette tip use when possible. However, more research on pipette tip waste is needed to quantifiably analyze the impact of tips and come up with solutions to reduce potential waste.
I think undergraduate biomedical teaching and research labs do apply basic green chemistry principles, even if they are not explicitly brought up. Many of the reactions are done in very small, precise quantities and waste is generally disposed of in the proper place. However, there does not seem to be much exposure, if at all when it comes to green chemistry issues; biochemistry and biomedical students aren’t aware of the environmental impact they generate in labs. Introducing green chemistry education in biomedical laboratories at U of T, especially when it comes to the issue of pipette tips and racks, would help U of T reduce its environmental impact even more.
 G. A. Ragan, J. Chem. Health Saf. 2007, 14, (6) 17-20. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1871553206001344