In recent times we’ve all become more aware of the impact of plastic waste on our environment. The BBC programme ’Blue Planet II’ and others have had a profound effect on public perception. The idea that plastic is disposable is no longer acceptable. However scientific research has been a largely ignored consumer of single-use plastics until recently.
This is no longer the case. Many articles are now focussing on reducing lab waste and recycling or re-using laboratory plastic:
- Can science break its plastic addiction? This article published by Wellcome was also reproduced in The Guardian  and on CNN 
- Reduce, reuse, recycle: sustainability in the lab
- How to reduce your lab’s plastic waste from The Biologist
A study from the University of Exeter estimates that laboratories worldwide generate 5.5 million tonnes of plastic waste each year – equal to 83% of the plastic recycled worldwide in 2012. Often the scale of the issue is only fully seen by the technicians who collect lab waste and send it to be ‘autoclaved’ – a process that is itself very energy intensive – and finally to landfill. Without scientific research we wouldn’t have the knowledge, technologies, products and medicines that are vital to 21st-century lives, but there is a growing recognition that we must reduce the associated laboratory waste and make science more sustainable.
At first sight, sample management software or a LIMS system might not be the most obvious tool to help reduce lab waste. However, incremental efficiency savings in every aspect of the management of your sample inventory can add up to a very significant reduction of waste and energy consumption.
This applies not only to plastic waste, but to general reductions in the consumption of labware, reagents, storage and energy – all of which improve laboratory running costs along with reducing lab waste.
1. How tracking sample history helps to minimise lab waste
How long have your samples been in storage? What has happened to them during that time?
If you have an accurate record of each sample’s life history, this can be used to produce several efficiencies:
Shelf life: What determines your sample’s shelf life and are you able to track it accurately? Does it need to be a fixed number of months? Or could it be based on the usage of the sample? If so, this could save little-used samples from being thrown away unnecessarily.
Sample usage: if samples are no longer used because a project has closed down or their owner has left the company, perhaps they could be more efficiently stored in a central repository that does not need to be accessed as frequently. Alternatively, they could be disposed of to free up storage space and avoid the need to run additional freezers.
Freeze/thaw cycles: It is well known that repeated thawing and re-freezing of small molecule solution stock affects the quality of the sample. An alternative to restocking all samples every year, is to use a thaw/freeze count to check those samples at highest risk in order to determine which ones need replacing.
The benefits of tracking these three indicators are:
- Reduces the need to refresh certain samples, saving on labware and researcher time
- Indicates when a sample needs to be refreshed sooner, which avoids wasting downstream labware and expensive assay reagents producing inaccurate data
Sample management software or LIMS, such as Titian’s Mosaic, is designed to track the entire lifecycle of a sample from creation to disposal and automatically note the number of times a sample has been through a freeze/thaw cycle. It is then easy to run reports of what has been done in the lab to identify the savings listed above.
Mosaic software also has close integrations with lab automation vendors that enhance data accuracy and tracking which offer further efficiencies from identifying and removing out of date samples. For example, information on samples’ DMSO percentage determined by a Beckman Coulter Echo® (formerly Labcyte) can be tracked and reported on through the Mosaic software interface, allowing degraded samples to be flagged for removal as soon as they pass a certain threshold.
2. Minimise waste by using labware efficiently
Running assays using full plates ensures the most efficient use of the reagents and plates required, but individual researchers won’t necessarily need to use a full plate of compounds for each assay.
Mosaic software provides an Assay Requesting Module which gives an overview on which assays are going to run and when. Researchers use its simple interface to request assays to be run on samples. Multiple researchers in an organisation can place orders for the same assay and Mosaic will consolidate all the requests into an Assay Queue. This allows the Sample Management operator to choose the number of samples to process to most efficiently fulfil the assay(s) – perhaps opting to leave some samples to be added to the next assay run.
The inventory of a sample management or LIMS system is easily searchable. This allows groups or departments to share reagents rather than ordering and maintaining separate stocks of the same thing. This is particularly useful for items that only get used occasionally, especially where they have a limited shelf life. As well as reducing reagent costs, it also reduces the number of containers that need to be cleaned, recycled or sent to waste.
Pipetting of liquids – whether manual or automated – usually generates high levels of consumable waste as tips tend to be single-use to avoid cross-contamination. However, there are three ways your lab can reduce this:
- Tip reuse: if you are just dispensing system fluid or DMSO, do you need to change pipette tips? Tip use can often be set when programming your liquid handler, allowing you to reduce plastic use. Integrated sample management software like Mosaic will let you specify when to change tips as part of creating the sample processing workflow, with no need to write individual scripts for each instrument.
- Tipless dispensing: acoustic dispensers do not require pipette tips, removing one element of waste. Mosaic software offers off-the-shelf close integration with Beckman Coulter Echo and Access® platforms (both formerly Labcyte), and AcoustiX® Tubes, to help you manage your acoustic liquid handling easily.
- Miniaturised dispensing: Using nanolitre volumes in assays cuts down on the amount of plastic required for the pipettes, allows assays to be concentrated into a smaller number of high density plates and conserves sample so it goes further. Acoustic dispensers combine the benefits of both miniaturised volumes and tipless dispensing.
Learn more about Mosaic FreezerManagement and the benefits it brings in our demo video - watch it here.
3. Make savings from efficient freezer storage management
In an earlier blog, we asked “How much does it cost to run my laboratory freezer?”
In summary, one standard -80°C laboratory freezer consumes around 6900 kWh of electricity each year. In countries where energy prices are high, this means that approximately €1600/ $1700 / £1400 are spent each year for each freezer on electricity alone. Where fossil fuels are used to generate a significant proportion of the electricity used, calculations on the amount of carbon dioxide produced per kWh show that 6900 kWh produces between 2000-5000 kgs of CO2, or the equivalent of driving an average car 11,500 miles. And this is before you consider the associated energy requirements of the building housing the freezers, which may require energy-intensive air-conditioning.
Clearly then, it is essential to make the most efficient use of freezer space to maximise what can be stored in each one, and to minimise the numbers of freezers required.
As an example, Mosaic FreezerManagement is simple and affordable software that tracks your entire storage inventory to optimise freezer use and also:
- Guides the operator or scientist to the exact sample location, thus ensuring freezer doors are open for the minimum amount of time, which conserves energy and sample integrity
- Records sample properties, ensuring different samples are kept at the correct temperature for that sample type
- Includes a search function to avoid redundant purchases of reagents or other materials
4. What about reuse and recycling?
Finally, returning to a theme in the referenced articles above, not all lab plastics are too contaminated to be recycled. An example of this was highlighted by the Francis Crick Institute (FCI), involving glucose in plastic media bottles. Glucose (sugar) itself is non-hazardous, but recycling companies are generally wary of scientific jargon on labels. By finding contractors with the right expertise the FCI now recycle their media bottles after initial washing.
Recycling companies cannot normally deal with mixed materials, so you may need to review your choice of labware to ensure it is recyclable. For example, to ensure a tube cap and body are made of the same materials. Alternatively, it may mean swapping some items for reusable glass which can be washed.
Good inventory software also helps this process, as it tracks labware types and provides essential reports on usage. This allows you to assess the most and least commonly used items in your lab. Perhaps reducing the variety of labware types, or changing the materials of some, could result in big waste savings for your lab?
Consider the bigger picture when reducing waste
An effective sample management software or LIMS system, such as Mosaic, has an essential role to play in identifying areas of lab waste and efficiency savings in every aspect of the management of your sample inventory. These savings apply not only to plastic waste, but to general reductions in the consumption of labware, reagents, storage and energy – all of which improve your lab running costs as well as reducing laboratory waste.