Daniel Zhao, Senior Photographer

Plastic’s use has been cemented in scientific research by promises of accuracy and standardized replication. Yet researchers are still weighing the impacts of labs producing an estimated 6 million tons of plastic waste yearly, balancing necessity with efficiency. 

With over 1200 labs spanning across disciplines, Yale is not new to the plastic discourse. The imagery of waste bins brimming with discarded single-use plastic and scientists replacing plastic equipment at incredible speed has incited concern from both an internal and external perspective. 

But environmentalists, researchers and students urge people to take a step back, weighing in on the paradoxical complexity of the “plastic problem” in science.

“I believe that medical research is a very justified use of discardable plastic,” Ellen Foxman, an associate professor of laboratory medicine and immunobiology at the Yale School of Medicine and the principal investigator of the Foxman Lab, said. “We live in a time when many people worry about sustainability, and I do, too, but there are good uses for plastic as opposed to bad uses.”

Foxaman’s lab works with human pathogens, using disposable plastics to prevent cross contamination and to contain infections. She mentioned that what the public considers to be more “sustainable” forms of plastic may not be suitable for a laboratory setting due to experimental parameters for durability. 

Different types of plastics have different polymer makeups and structure, affecting the way it can interact with different substances at various heats and pressures demanded of laboratory work, according to Foxman. Thus, many lab exercises are designed with a specific plastic in mind.

Moreover, some plasticware used in Foxman’s pathogenic experiments undergo corrosive bleaching and disinfecting procedures afterwards, making them “unsuitable” for a subsequent experiment or trial.

“At Yale, we have labs performing research with a wide variety of hazardous materials, all having different degrees of risk,” Kevin Charbonneau, the executive director of Yale Environmental Health and Safety (EHS), wrote to the News. “Safety is the first and most important hurdle to overcome. We have to consider what we are asking people to do and determine whether or not the benefit outweighs the risk to them as well as the workers downstream. Once the safety and regulatory hurdles are taken into account, one also needs to assess the feasibility and economics of implementing such a change.”

According to EHS, which oversees the waste management of lab supplies and equipment at the University’s undergraduate and professional programs, any plastic that has come into contact with biochemical substances is considered a biohazard. Any plastic containing any form of cell culture is then considered Biosafety Level 2, requiring additional care in disposal and transportation to curb contamination and infection.

The classification excludes discarded single-use plastic with biochemical exposure from the list of laboratory materials that can be recycled with official permission, as per a list of guidelines designed by EHS, Yale Sustainability and Yale Recycling

Used pipette tips fall under this category, making them one of the greatest sources of plastic waste in labs and stymying the effort to curb plastic consumption overall. 

Daniel Mendoza ’25, a student researcher at Yale, said that he goes through about 100 plastic pipette tips daily — sometimes even 200 to 300 during a busy day. 

Miles Yamner ’25, who also has laboratory experience at Yale, added that much of the disposable plastic pipette tips used in his lab are designed to “degrade faster,” and thus are not meant for reusing. In fact, reuse can be more harmful than helpful.

Compared to shifting to non-plastic labware, recycling single-use plastic can sometimes be environmentally counterproductive in terms of associated greenhouse gas emissions and energy costs, according to Reid Lifset — a research scholar at the Yale School of the Environment. 

This paradox contradicts the common “public perception” of plastic as purely an enemy, he said, and of our tendency to ethically default to either recycling or finding alternatives without additional research. While this perspective sometimes holds true and plays a role in creating environmental consciousness, Lifset mentioned that it is important to consider context, urging people to approach the plastic problem from a “lifecycle perspective.” 

Rather than limiting our attention to the last stage of single-use plastic’s life cycle — discardment — Lifset suggested that those concerned about the environmental impact of different materials consider the entirety of their life cycles. First, substances are extracted from the natural environment, then processed and turned into products before finally being thrown away. 

Some materials that are traditionally viewed as greener than plastic, such as glass and metal, may actually have greenhouse gas and energy expenditures throughout their entire life cycles that exceed those of single-use plastic, according to Lifset. 

Lifset described this in the context of bags. One single-use plastic bag requires less emissions to make than one cotton tote bag. But the continual use of the tote bag replacing many plastic bags makes it more sustainable in the long term. 

Thus, Lifset contended, continual use of products is key. Since the reusable product will leave a more significant environmental dent during production, it will only benefit the environment if it is used many times in place of a single-use product. 

Despite acknowledging the advantages of plastic in experimental science, some students are speaking out in favor of streamlining or improving lab practices to be more environmentally favorable. Hyerim Bianca Nam ’24, who is familiar with laboratory settings both at Yale and overseas in Germany, paid close attention to the differences in plastic protocol between the two countries. Nam is also a staff columnist for the News. 

“In the German ecological lab where I was working with chemicals and RNA, we would put tips and even gloves into the autoclave bin, where they would be autoclaved for reuse in certain circumstances,” Nam said. “The two labs were in different disciplines, so they’re not perfectly comparable, but … it was interesting that in the lab here [at Yale], people were a lot more careless about throwing away tips that could maybe be reused.

 “If they missed with the pipette, [if a] tip fell or was crooked in the box … [and sometimes even if pipette tips were] in the same [liquid] medium, we would just throw it away,” Nam said. 

EHS currently does not enlist any formal policies for the aforementioned situations, but Charbonneau noted that while there has not been a “monumental change” to wet lab practices that has reversed this policy, the University has been working to engineer a more individualized approach to creating sustainable science over the past decade.

In 2011, Yale launched the Green Lab Initiative, urging scientists to cultivate a socioemotional consciousness of their environmental footprint — even if it’s just “the basics,” he said. Labs would check off small action items like printing double-sided pages and recycling sterile pipette boxes, ultimately working toward four different levels of certification. 

As of this year, nearly 363 principal investigators have participated in the program according to EHS records, though Charbonneau described the effort as “more reserved and complicated [when it comes to plastic recycling] due to waste regulations and health and safety risks.

Virginia Chapman, director of Yale Sustainability, added that Chris Incarvito, associate provost for science initiatives, actively serves on the board for the International Institute for Sustainable Laboratories, which will soon be releasing “recommendations” that her team looks forward to incorporating “as possible,” she said. 

Chapman also looks forward to expanding outreach to more intimately engage the broader community in conversations about environmental waste, as well as educating them about what exactly the “best practices” are when it comes to plastic in science. 

Meanwhile, on a more localized level, some principal investigators and lab personnel are committing to developing laboratory cultures that “work smarter,” and not just harder, to improve sustainability efforts.  

Foxman, for example, keeps efficiency at the forefront of her research, “always thinking” about ways to be resourceful by “carefully planning” out experiments to prioritize “high impact experiments.” Equipment is not the only valuable resource, she said. Her lab is also handling “precious” clinical samples and primary human cells that, like plastic, are not always feasibly recyclable.

“Biomedical research may be one of the last areas where you can get rid of consumables, but we want to get the maximum amount of science done with the minimum amount of cost,” Foxman said. 

This year, Yale Sustainability Week took place from Oct. 3 to Oct. 7. 

Correction, 10/11: Due to an editorial mistake, this article has been updated to accurately reflect estimates of plastic waste produced yearly by worldwide labs.

Brian Zhang is Arts editor of the Yale Daily News and the third-year class president at Yale. Previously, he covered student life for the University desk. His writing can also be found in Insider Magazine, The Sacramento Bee, BrainPOP, New York Family and uInterview. Follow @briansnotebook on Instagram for more!
Kayla Yup covers Science & Social Justice and the Yale New Haven Health System for the SciTech desk. For the Arts desk, she covers anything from galleries to music. She is majoring in Molecular, Cellular & Developmental Biology and History of Science, Medicine & Public Health as a Global Health Scholar.