The journey and impact of a pipette tip

The journey and impact of a pipette tip

The journey and impact of a pipette tip

I, like many researchers at the Institute, studied Biology at university. But rather than learning the mechanisms of disease, I focused on animals, ecology and the environment. Whilst studying I became too familiar with the detrimental effects of plastics in our environment. Since starting at the Babraham Institute Stores I’ve witnessed the vast amount of single use plastic across used across campus. Whilst its use in science is necessary, the impact and environmental cost cannot be overlooked. Taking pipette tips as an example, here’s why you should think about the full journey plastic takes before it gets into your hands, even if you recycle.

How many plastic pipette tips does a lab group go through in a day? A week? A year?

It’s probably more than you imagine. Globally we produce over 400 million metric tonnes of plastic a year. There is no doubt scientific research contributes to the plastic crisis. In 2015 the University of Exeter did a back-of-the-envelope calculation and estimated their scientific labs produced over 5.5 million metric tons of plastic waste a year! And an audit uncovered that pipette tip boxes made up 80% of laboratory plastic waste from MIT. However, when it comes to environmental impact the waste produced is only the tip of the iceberg for pipette tips.

The life of a pipette tips starts in a sterile room. All manufacturing is highly controlled. Clean rooms, protected by HEPA filters, are heavily monitored for air particle measurements, air exchange rate, temperature, humidity and pressure. This ensures all tips produced are identical and sterile.

Just like a plastic bottle you probably have nearby, pipette tips are made from crude oil-based polypropylene resin. Automated high performance injection moulding machines sculpt the resin into a precise cone shape. This maintains high quality and consistency between the tips produced. The environmental impact of pipette tips goes far beyond their plastic contribution, it includes the energy required for precise manufacturing.

But that’s not all! Once the tip has been created it has to get to the lab for use! They’re packaged up (normally in more plastic but alternatives are available) and shipped globally for scientific use. These air miles can really rack up!

Finally, the pipette tips are ready to be used. Scientists can spend two hours a day pipetting, changing a tip every time a new liquid is used to keep the experiment sterile. It’s no wonder they get through so many!

You might know that polypropylene resin can be recycled, but it’s not that easy. Specialist facilities are required to break down the product and its rare pipette tips are pure polypropylene. There are lots of different pipette tips for different uses. Low retention tips reduce the amount of liquid that gets stuck and stays in the tip. So, these tips can have surface modifying chemicals to increase hydrophobicity. And filter tips can include membranes of HDPE to reduce contamination in experiments. Also, the some of the fluid the scientist was pipetting can stay in the tip. All these factors can make tips un-recyclable.

Some tips are suitable for autoclaving – meaning they can be sterilised and reused. However, rather than being made from traditional polypropylene they need to be manufactured from heat resistant materials, and high temperature resistant microorganisms and enzymes can still be difficult to inactivate which means they could contaminate the next round of experiments.

Alternatives to disposable tips are being developed. ‘Biobased’ plastics are now available from Eppendorf. They’re made of 90% plant-based polymer sourced from waste cooking oil and 10% traditional polypropylene. But keep in mind, just because a plastic is bio-based that does not mean it is biodegradable!

So where do all these pipettes end up? Ultimately most pipette tips end up being incinerated or sent to landfill. Here they contribute to the release of greenhouse gas emissions and microplastics into the environment.

Is there a solution?

Unfortunately, just like other efforts to reduce plastic use there is no perfect solution for lab consumables. If there was, we’d all be using it! But perhaps taking a little more time to decide where and what consumables you use can go a long way. Maybe you choose to use a UK manufacturer to reduce shipping emissions, opt to pay a little more for bio-based plastic products or choose lower plastic alternatives such as Starlab refill trays and Rainin spacesaver trays (both available from the Institute's Stores). Ultimately, scientists have a responsibility to levy their voices at conferences and utilise their spending power to call for a more sustainable future in science.

Reducing our environmental impact is everyone’s responsibility. Plastic resources are a limited supply we all must take care of.