Public Health Wales explores ways to reduce carbon emissions from microbiology labs

  • 23rd May 2024

Public Health Wales (PHW), in conjunction with Revolution-ZERO, has published a report which highlights the potential to reduce carbon emissions from microbiology laboratories by investigating ways to reduce single-use plastics.

The report not only demonstrates PHW’s commitment to environmental sustainability, but also highlights the pivotal role that small-scale actions can play in mitigating its collective impact on climate change.

The endeavour comes in response to a concerning trend over the past decade, where microbiology labs have increasingly relied on single-use plastic items due to evolving work practices, material availability, and stringent health and safety standards.

In 2014 alone, research laboratories worldwide generated a staggering 5.5 million tonnes of plastic waste, much of which goes unrecycled due to contamination risks.

The advent of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 also exacerbated the issue, leading to a significant surge in single-use plastics and personal protective equipment, thereby increasing emissions and waste within laboratory settings.

Securing funding from the Welsh Government’s Health and Social Care Climate Emergency Fund, PHW joined forces with external partners, including Revolution-ZERO, the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), and Eunomia, to examine this pressing challenge.

And, while the project primarily focused on PHW laboratories, its findings and solutions hold promise for replication across the broader healthcare and science sectors.

Kelly Ward, interim deputy head of operations at Public Health Wales, said: “A number of actions have been identified as a result of the project where changes have and could be made to reduce carbon emissions.”

Ben Davies, business support manager of the microbiology division, added: “Key initiatives highlighted in the project include the establishment of a sustainable lab group, adoption of biodegradable alternatives such as cocktail sticks, and engagement with potential suppliers of sustainable products and services.

“Additionally, lifecycle assessments conducted as part of the project identified potential significant emission savings from various scenarios, including reducing sample bags/packaging and recycling pipette tip boxes.”

The report identifies the top 16 single-use plastic materials and the highest carbon impact items used in the microbiology labs.

The top three are Agar (contained in petri dish); microbank vials; and sodium hydroxide containers.

The recommendations, endorsed by PHW’s Climate Change Programme Board, include establishing a specific procurement task group, reducing paper usage, and focusing on the highest carbon impact single-use plastic items.

Several recommendations have already been implemented, including small trials for recycling plastic pipette tip boxes and utilising sustainable spreading sticks.

But the transition away from single-use plastics presents significant challenges, including navigating existing procurement frameworks and ensuring seamless service delivery.

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