Making labs greener

Plastics are cheap and convenient but their production and waste take a massive toll on the environment. Leading the way in achieving the University’s pledge to eliminate avoidable single-use plastic usage by 2022 are Maggy Fostier and Ruth Grady, lecturers in the School of Biological Sciences who are determined to reduce single-use plastics in the lab.

With funding from the Faculty of Biology, Medicine and Health Sciences (FBMH) to improve Social Responsibility within the curriculum, the 6R lab protocol was first developed to reduce plastics in FBMH practical classes in 2019.

The approach that Ruth and Maggy chose was to audit their labs and look at different ways in which they could make changes to improve sustainability and reduce plastic use in the following ways:

  • Refine protocol and optimise waste management.
  • Reduce single-use plastic.
  • Use recycled material.
  • Re-use plastic containers and gloves.
  • Refill plastic and glass containers for each class.
  • Replace plastics where possible with glass, paper or wood.

Maggy explaines: “The 6R approach is taken from the 3R (reduce, reuse, refine) approach which looks to reduce the number of animals in research, something else that I am concerned with. The 6Rs can also be adapted to day-to-day life, whatever your situation may be. It makes you very aware of when you’re using plastics and once it’s in your head it’s hard not to notice it.”

Before the COVID pandemic, the 6R protocol was introduced to 12 practical classes and saved around 37,000 items of plastics and £3,000 per year. Following this hugely successful result, other research labs are being encouraged to follow suit and a roll out of the 6R protocol is being adapted for all the FBMH practical classes. The University’s Faculty of Science and Engineering is also starting to adopt the protocol within some of their laboratories.

Adapting 6R to research labs is the next long term project, which is being led by Lydia Wunderley. At present a small team of 6R champions have been recruited to help other lab members maximise recycling opportunities and share tips to reduce plastic waste. Some will also develop pilot schemes to improve the current protocol and work together with procurement, stores and waste management to identify and promote more sustainable laboratory products.

Meanwhile, Maggy and Ruth, with the help of student intern, Chiamaka Anoliefo, are working towards integrating 6R within the University of Manchester approved lab sustainability accreditation system – ‘LEAF’ (Lab Efficiency Assessment Framework). The long term goal is for all our labs to become greener by reducing plastic waste.

6R will now be embedded in the curriculum, it will be advertised to 1st and 2nd year students as part of the ‘Sustainability Challenge’ and is part of 50,000 actions initiative. The student 6R Champion Volunteer Scheme is soon to be launched to promote 6R, carry out case studies or improve the protocol. Environmental Sustainability Final Year projects are also to be launched in the near future to develop, implement and test 6R initiatives in labs or on campus.

For further details on this project please contact Maggy Fostier or Lydia Wunderley.