As a postdoctoral researcher, Cristina Azevedo went through single-use plastic tubes by the hundreds. The University College London biochemist was culturing yeast in Falcon tubes, and the thought of all that plastic waste was like an itch she couldn’t scratch — especially when she recalled her PhD research, in which she grew bacteria in reusable glass flasks. “My own work was bothering me, and all around I could see the amount of plastic just being thrown out because of the need for sterility,” she says.
She’s not alone. Scientists are increasingly aware of the disproportionate environmental footprint of their research. Academic research facilities consume three to six times as much energy as commercial buildings, much of that due to refrigeration and ventilation systems. These facilities are also out sized producers of plastic waste — an issue that has become particularly acute since 2017, when China stopped accepting several types of plastic for recycling from the United States and Europe, causing more recyclable waste to be piled into local landfills.