Author: Devon Hucek
Editors: Ryan Schildcrout, Sarah Bassiouni, & Will Dana
Illustrator: Saaj Chattopadhyay
New research papers are published daily, reporting advances in every scientific field. However, science can’t happen without proper equipment and materials, many of which are made out of plastic. Why? Plastic is often the cheapest available material and is safer than glassware, which has a much higher likelihood of breakage. A study done at the University of California-Santa Barbara found that 80% of laboratory plastic waste at MIT consisted of pipette tip boxes alone. A microbiology lab in Edinburgh, UK found that in a four week span, they had produced 97 kg (213.8 lbs) of plastic waste. Using plastic is not inherently bad, especially since there are many available resources and regulations (both local and state) for recycling and reusing plastic waste. However, the volume of unrecyclable plastic waste generated in labs across the globe is massive, and seems like an impossible problem to tackle. Enter, bioplastics.
What are bioplastics?
Traditional plastics are refined from raw materials (natural gas, coal, and crude oil are some examples) to make ethane and propane, which are then treated with high heat to become ethylene and propylene monomers (molecules that can fuse together to become longer chains). These monomers are converted to longer chains called polymers, which are then melted, cooled, and reshaped into plastic materials such as bottles or packaging. This process is energy demanding, produces a significant volume of byproducts, and results in a product that is challenging to responsibly dispose of.
In contrast, bioplastics are generated from renewable biological sources and materials that act as more environmentally friendly alternatives to traditional plastics. According to the Green Business Bureau, there are 5 common types of bioplastics: starch-based, cellulose-based, protein-based, bio-derived polyethylene, and aliphatic polyesters. Many bioplastics are produced primarily for one time use purposes such as food packaging and biomedical tools, but the use of bioplastics has expanded to further applications. For example, polyhydroxyalkanoate is a bioplastic polymer synthesized by bacteria that has been used for a wide range of production in areas such as biomedical devices, packaging, diapers, prodrug development, and many more. Scientists are currently exploring other ways to produce more sustainable bioplastics, in contrast to existing ones, which require extensive land use and give off pollutants during production. Researchers have utilized other sources to make new bioplastics such as tree gum exudate and DNA from salmon. The Arizona Center for Algae Technology and Innovation at Arizona State University has begun to develop algae bioplastics. Algae is especially useful because it can give high yields in varying environmental conditions, while other bioplastics require specific environmental conditions for production.
What are some downsides of bioplastics?
Bioplastics sound like a great alternative to traditional fossil-fuel-based plastics, but there are some reasons why they aren’t going to get rid of our plastic problem (at least not yet). Biodegradability, the breakdown of organic matter by microorganisms, is complicated when it comes to bioplastics. Although they are biodegradable, most can only do so under controlled environmental conditions. With these restrictions, it’s just not feasible to dump bioplastics into a regular landfill and assume they will degrade over time. A 2020 sustainability study found that the most suitable condition for biodegradation was in compost, whereas landfill degradation was the worst. For example, PHA-based bioplastics showed 80% degradation within 4 months in compost, but in aquatic environments, only 50% degradation was observed after one year. PCL (a starch based bioplastic) had a biodegradation rate of approximately 88% in under 50 days while in a compost environment. Meanwhile, when PCL was buried in a landfill, the degradation rate reached 83% in 139 days. They also found that only a few biodegradable plastics were able to decompose under all environmental conditions. Since the biodegradability of bioplastics is so variable, it is important to educate those who use bioplastics about the methods of disposal.
Implementing bioplastics in scientific research could be a two-pronged game changer:  helping us lessen the amount of plastic waste generated in scientific research and  reducing our dependence on fossil fuels. However, more research still needs to be done before this goal can be realized on a large scale. In the meantime, there are several ways that you can help to reduce the amount of lab-generated plastic waste. MiSciWriters Lirong Shi and Manaswini Sarangi wrote a great article summarizing the types of scientific waste, how they are disposed of, and how to reduce waste in the lab. Companies like Grenova make instruments like the TipNovus specifically for reusing washed pipette tips. At the University of Michigan, labs can participate in the pipette tip box recycling program, which aims to repurpose the boxes into park benches and other similar items. Until we can reach our goal of eliminating all plastic.
Devon Hucek is a first year PhD student in the Medicinal Chemistry program. She is a member of the Cierpicki & Grembecka lab where she studies histone methyltransferases involved in leukemia and other cancers. Devon is originally from Green Bay, Wisconsin and received her undergraduate degree at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. She worked in Dr. Stephen Drucker’s lab synthesizing unsaturated carbonyl compounds and measuring their excited state vibrational frequencies using spectroscopic and computational methods. Outside the lab, Devon enjoys reading, sketching, and playing dungeons and dragons with her friends.