Many governments now impose charges for single-use plastic bags and bottles. As responsible researchers, we should cut back on disposable plastics (see also G. Bistulfi Nature 502, 170; 2013).
We estimate that the 280 bench scientists in our bioscience department generated roughly 267 tonnes of plastic in 2014 (data from University of Exeter Sustainability and Waste and Resource Management offices). That is equivalent to about 5.7 million empty 2-litre plastic bottles. Some 20,500 institutions worldwide are involved in biological, medical or agricultural research (where plastic disposal is likely to be heaviest), so that could equate to around 5.5 million tonnes of lab plastic waste in 2014 — roughly the combined tonnage of 67 cruise liners, and equal to 83% of the plastic recycled worldwide in 2012.
We justify our use of disposables on the grounds of costs and time saved. Grant agencies therefore need to introduce incentives to reduce plastic waste, for example by funding lab washing-up and recycling facilities, and possibly to make greener lab practices a requirement in the grant-application process.