Why we should care about resource usage:

In recent years, energy and plastic consumption have become focal points for labs that want to conserve resources and work greener.  Both energy and plastic are crucial to the operation of many (if not all) labs both in and outside of universities.  However, the amount of resources that is used has begun to raise questions in many scientists’ minds.

Take, for example, energy consumption.  Most biological labs use a variety of electrical equipment in order to maintain and run experiments.  One common appliance is an ultra low freezer that can keep samples stored at very low temperatures, often maxing out between -80°C and -90°C.  When operating at -80°C, these freezers can consume approximately 19 kW-hr/day (based on our own) , or 6,935 kW-hr/ year.  This is comparable to the amount used by a 90-120 m2 apartment in Austria [1].  To make things worse, this is just the energy used by one freezer and does not take into account the myriad of other appliances used such as autoclaves, incubators, centrifuges, and fume hoods.  Because of this, recent efforts have been made to characterize the total amount of energy that labs use [2] and to point out which appliances use the most energy and how this can be reduced [3,4,5].  Efforts can also be made to switch to renewable energy sources, rather than fossil fuels, if those options exist. 

Plastic consumption is another major concern.  A study from the University of Exeter estimated that 280 bench scientists produced approximately 5.5 million tonnes of plastic in 2014 [6].  The study also pointed out that this would be the equivalent tonnage of 67 cruise liners.  Although these numbers are already staggering, they will quickly add up to a lot more when taking into account all of the university labs in the world.  Efforts are currently being made to recycle as much of this plastic waste as possible. In the Genever Lab at the University of York’s Department of Biology, recycling efforts were able to prevent one tonne of waste going to the landfill each year [7].  

Although encouraging, recycling plastics can be a challenge.  Not all plastics are created equal.  When produced, plastics are typically classified into different categories and assigned a resin identification code, or RIC [8].  These RIC numbers are indicative of what kind of plastic it is and how it was made.  They are also good indicators of how easy, or difficult, it can be to recycle.  (See these sources for some general overviews on different RICs: [9,10,11,12]) Some numbers, such as 1,2, and 5, are easily recyclable, while others, such as 3,4,6, and 7, are not.  Many factors contribute to the recyclability of plastics.  One example is whether the plastic is thermostable or thermoset.  Thermostable plastics are made from 1-D polymer chains [13] and can typically be melted down and reformed. Contrarily, thermoset plastics are made from polymers that form 2-D or 3-D networks and are not easily remolded [13].  In this case they would have to be completely incinerated.   Additionally, dirty plastic often needs to be cleaned beforehand, whether it is food or lab waste [14,15].  And finally, some plastics are not recycled because there is simply not a market demand for the recycling [11,15].    

How does this pertain to university labs?  Based on our own analysis of the plastics we use at the University of Vienna, only about half of the waste we produce are plastics that can be easily recycled.  This has encouraged us to investigate different options for products that are not recyclable and to think twice before using one-time-use plastics.  By making an active effort to recycle, and by choosing to use products that can be recycled, labs have an opportunity to create and dispose of waste in a more responsible manner. 

It is undeniable that research activities will consume resources such as energy and plastic.  But making a conscious effort to reduce the amount used and recycle as much as possible will help to minimize the impact of labs in the future. 


  1.  Ghaemi, Sara & Brauner, Guenther. (2009). “User behavior and patterns of electricity use for energy saving.” Internationale Energiewirtschaftstagung IEWT. https://publik.tuwien.ac.at/files/PubDat_180870.pdf
  2. Yoshinaka, Ryo, and Ayumi Shinohara. (2017).  “Analysis of laboratories electrical energy consumption by visualization for saving electrical energy.” International Journal of Institutional Research and Management. http://www.iaiai.org/journals/index.php/IJIRM/article/view/113
  3. https://www.sciencemag.org/features/2016/04/adding-efficiency-general-lab-equipment
  4. Kerry, S. Y. Carbon neutral for all?-Laboratory equipment energy efficiency survey. Diss. Thesis. University of British Columbia- Applied science, Vancouver, Canada. http://greenlabs.sites.olt.ubc.ca/files/2016/05/EnergyUseReport.pdf
  5. https://www.villahope.org/how-to-reduce-energy-consumption-in-the-laboratory/
  6. Urbina, M., Watts, A. & Reardon, E. Labs should cut plastic waste too. Nature 528, 479 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1038/528479c
  7. Kuntin, David. “How to… reduce your lab’s plastic waste”. The Biologist 65(6) p28-31 https://thebiologist.rsb.org.uk/biologist-features/158-biologist/features/2072-how-to-reduce-your-lab-s-plastic-waste
  8.  https://plastics.americanchemistry.com/Plastic-Packaging-Resin-Identification-Codes/
  9. https://www.ryedale.gov.uk/attachments/article/690/Different_plastic_polymer_types.pdf
  10. https://www.generalkinematics.com/blog/different-types-plastics-recycled/
  11. https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-45496884
  12. https://www.clf.org/blog/cant-recycle-out-of-plastic-pollution-problem-guide/
  13. https://plastics.americanchemistry.com/How-Plastics-Are-Made/
  14. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/nov/10/research-labs-plastic-waste
  15. https://blog.nationalgeographic.org/2018/04/04/7-things-you-didnt-know-about-plastic-and-recycling/