Polystyrene in our environment
When considering the implementation of our project with the real world, we found that the concrete issue we are dealing with turns out to be much more challenging than expected. Because the University of Westminster strongly leans towards law education, one of the initial ideas we had was to write a law proposal to tax EPS producing companies. We got in contact with Amer Eid, one of the best students from the law department of the University, and organised a meeting with him in early June. During the meeting we discussed how we would come to accomplish our goal of reaching out to the government, and found that we need over 1000 votes on the proposal only for it to be studied out by the environmental department.
This led us to research more and find that the same proposal had already been attempted during the previous year and at the time we were looking at the page, it had collected no more than 20 votes on its side, indicating that it may not have been the greatest idea.
University plastic waste
Spending time wondering around the University and its facilities we found that the highest usage of unnecessary single-use polystyrene products occurred in the University cafeteria and the main University cafe store, where the consumption of polystyrene cups demanded weekly new purchases of over 200 cups.
We intervened by reaching out to our university’s sustainability team, who agreed on stopping the purchases.
During the project, we wanted to make sure that apart from polystyrene, other major plastic waste contributors were also considered. The most accessible and one of the biggest contributors indeed turned out to be plastic bottle waste. To tackle the issue, we decided to post plastic awareness posters around the Faculty of Science and Technology (FST) campus. The posters caused occasional attraction, but a difference in the number of students who were impacted by the posters to use reusable bottles could not be observed.
The plastic lab
Polystyrene problems aside, integrating the human practices of reusing, reducing and recycling went on to integrating the solutions farther from the general public and more towards the scientific community itself. We found that supporting other iGEM teams to understand their own wasteful impacts was of great importance.
About 1.8% of the total global plastic waste was found to come from bio-research facilities (Urbina, 2015). Laboratories involved with mitigating the impacts of pollution, along with many other laboratories that conduct biochemical and chemical research appear to be significantly contributing to the waste by the amounts of plastics they unnecessarily dispose themselves. Various items like Petri dishes and culture tubes have been replaced with single-use plastic alternatives. Pipetting tips and syringes are used once and then disposed of, while culture media is cleaned through disposable filters into disposable pre-sterilised plastic bottles. Plastic consumables are cheap, come pre-sterilised and simply tend to save time and labour. After use, most of them go into landfill or biohazard waste streams. While many lab plastics are recyclable in principle, most of them remain thrown into general waste bins due to possible contamination.
An article published by the University of Exeter in 2015 estimated that Exeter’s Department of Biosciences generated about 267 tonnes of plastic in 2014, which was estimated to be 5.5 million tonnes of laboratory originated plastic waste worldwide. To understand the significance of this tonnage of waste, it is almost equivalent to the weight of the heaviest building in the world.
We additionally wanted to continue off the idea of laboratory plastic waste reduction as a sequel to last year’s iGEM goes green campaign by the TU_Dresden team.
Bywaters recycling company visit (The Plastic Lab)
Here we will write about the company Bywaters and what our company visit entailed. Bywaters facilities are equipped to deal with a variety of mixed recyclables from both the public and private sector, such as; mixed plastics (PET, HDPE), Aluminium, Plasterboard, Cardboard, tetrapak and paper. Other materials such as non-recyclable are sent to other EfW buildings, this is so that such materials are converted into renewable energy.
The company survey at Bywater consisted of two major questions for which we expected detailed answers for. The general purpose of this survey was to help give context and develop the idea of the Plastic Lab, which will help set a standard protocol for plastic use and reuse in labs for future iGEM teams to use. The first question was whether laboratory plastics are normally recycled and if any were recycled by Bywater themselves, to which an answer was provided by Shamim Miah, Client Relationship Manager in Bywaters. He said that although most laboratory plastics are made from commonly recycled materials, most plastics that come out of them, especially bio-experimental labs, cannot be recycled due to the potentially toxic contaminants that end up covering them from the experimental studies. Say for example micropipetting tips: unless isolated and specified by the customer, all micropipetting tips no matter if they were thrown in sterile from handling water or alcohol, we always must assume that they were used for handling hazardous chemicals and biomaterial. The company does not recycle laboratory plastic waste, but they do recycle a lot of our plastics into the medical and biomedical material and are one of the biggest recycling distributors in this area.
University of Westminster sustainability team
We collaborated with University of Westminster's sustainability team at the early stage of our project. After we chose the environment as our major topic and plastic as our project focus we wanted to research on the plastic types that are usually disposed of.
We managed to put our own iGEM rubbish bins around the university so that we could empty them in the lab and use the waste to analyze the plastic. The amount of non-plastic rubbish stood out at first. People usually do not care about what the disposal sign says and threw everything into the same rubbish bin. Whilst it is good that people use rubbish bins rather than throwing rubbish on the floor it takes a lot of effort for the waste disposal companies to sort out the rubbish. So we decided to stick leaflets around the university that would draw attention and at the same time make people be more careful as to which rubbish they put in the rubbish bins.
The polystyrene bits from the rubbish were used in some of the chemical experiments and the water bottles collected were washed out and used in the education and engagement part of the project where we explained our project to school children.