Ben's Plastic-free July experience

But taking a step back from wet lab work has enabled me to take stock.

Growing up in the north of England, I grew accustomed to having different coloured bins for different types of waste so I was well versed in what rubbish goes where and which days the council would pick it up. I took this to another extreme during a short postdoc whilst living in Munich, Germany, where individual bins for different coloured glass, plastics, tins, clothing and textiles would populate communal areas and I became a stickler for the rules when it came to recycling anything and everything. However, it is only in the last couple of years since moving back to the UK, in Oxford, that I have consciously thought about what I actually buy in the first place with the additional packaging and how it gets delivered from A to B.

I have always been quite conservative with spending money and buying and consuming ’stuff’. But being exposed to a whole host of local community projects, many of which focus on being environmentally friendly and reducing waste with a plastic-free mentality, through volunteering with GoodGym Oxford and more recently with the Oxford Hub and Oxford Together, has given me food for thought about how I buy groceries, toiletries and other everyday items. For instance, since the start of 2020, I have subscribed to receive fortnightly veg boxes from Cultivate Oxford, which is a local co-operative that supplies locally-sourced fruit and veg to people in Oxford. The food is provided by local farms and delivered plastic packaging-free with delivery provided by cargo bike via Pedal and Post. Further, other staple food items such as rice, pasta, flour, bread, nuts and seeds can be added to the box provided by Infinity Foods or other co-operative wholesalers as well as laundry detergents and washing liquid from SESI. All this with little to no plastic packaging as waste and the food is delicious to boot. I have taken this a step further since having a garden by growing my own veg and herbs but that’s a topic for a different blog I think.

Photo of six assorted glass jars on a kitchen counter

SESI also supplies detergents and other cleaning agents at the East Oxford Market every Saturday morning, as well as at OxUnboxed, a local refillable initiative run by the Oxford Hub based at their office on Little Clarendon Street. All that is required is to take along your empty jars and containers, fill up with your foods of choice and pay by weight, or by volume for the laundry detergents and cleaning products. I now have a cupboard full of clean, empty coffee jars ready to use if we’re ever running low on oats, pasta or rice. In addition to food and cleaning items, they also supply sustainably-sourced toiletries and bamboo toothbrushes that I’m currently testing out. I’ve always been very economical with toothpaste and toothbrushes (ask any previous and current housemates…) and even the plastic ones I’ve had in the past are now useful for cleaning football boots after a particularly muddy weekend game or my bike if the gear cogs have gunk in between them, but given that bamboo toothbrushes are more sustainably sourced and biodegradable I thought I’d give it a go.

By looking local and doing a bit of research, I have found ways to reduce the amount of plastic and waste I produce on a personal level at home, although I am certainly not yet plastic-free. However, as a postdoc in the life sciences, the vast savings I am making at home pretty much pale into insignificance compared to the amount of plastic waste I get through in the lab on a daily basis. Depending on the experiment, I can get through pipette tips, tubes and other single-use plastics quickly. Through much of my early career in research, I honestly didn’t give much thought to the bags of consumables waste that labs produce, purely because that’s what everybody else in research did to reduce contamination between samples and leak over between experiments. It has only been since becoming more conscious on a personal level and being exposed to the information from the Sustainability Team at Oxford that it dawned on me that something probably should, and could, be done. I have become a member of the Green Impact Team in my department and instigated changes as part of this, and inspired by the LEAF initiative I have worked to reduce energy consumption and improve waste removal streams within the lab. We now have stickers to remind researchers to switch off equipment after use and to close the sash on the fume hood to avoid wasting energy. We also have clearer signage for what waste goes in what bin and how to recycle gas canisters. Fridges and freezers are better maintained and our electronic lab notebook and lab management software (via Labguru) keeps paper waste down and keeps track of chemicals, reagents and samples to reduce duplication and wasted resources. However, I can still never get over how much general waste we get through as a lab. We have tried to reduce this. From this week, in fact, the lab is using more glass pipettes for cell culture work. I have bought re-useable glass syringes for use in loading samples on protein gels and the liquid chromatography system, and I have finally moved on from using disposable columns (a habit I got into during my PhD) to buy glass re-useable empty columns for batch protein purifications.

Single-use items have been the norm in life sciences research to prevent cross-contamination, but there are ways of reducing waste and re-using items wherever possible. I wouldn’t have put much thought into this if I hadn’t taken a step out of the day-to-day grind of lab work to see what else was on offer within the wider community in Oxford, particularly with the break in lab-based work during the lockdown this year. I think increasing exposure to these issues, such as with Plastic Free July, can help. With the pandemic and resulting lockdown reducing litter and car fumes in Oxford, maybe this will give us all a nudge to think about consuming less stuff and as a result less plastic, as useful as it can be, to live a more sustainable existence and to reduce the negative impact these things can have on the environment.

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