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Minimizing waste, through the lens of the lab
Mark Tovey, 15 Oct 08

Toronto-based biochemist, science writer, and artist Eva Amsen has released Lab Waste, a short documentary calling attention to issues surrounding waste in bioscience laboratories, and what can be done about it. The film is "inspired by a decade of throwing out single-use plastics in labs" and "by a lifetime of being told to 'reduce, reuse, recycle'." Says Amsen:

In cell biology or molecular biology labs the emphasis is on working sterile, quickly and reproducibly. So companies have been selling all these incredibly useful products to life science labs: sterile plastic tubes of all shapes and sizes, single wrap multi-well tissue culture plates, sterile plastic dishes, sterile pipettes. All these products make it a lot easier to do the required work. I can't even imagine how you could work in a cell culture lab without them, but they do create a lot of waste.

An atmospheric opener gives a visual sense of the scale of the problem. Amsen acknowledges the influence of "Chris Jordan's consumerism-themed photography," and "the documentaries Garbage Island, Garbage! The Revolution Starts at Home, and Manufactured Landscapes."

The core question of the film:

Can anything be done to limit the amount of waste produced without compromising convenience, sterility, accuracy, or productivity?

Synched to the edgy sonic backdrop of Brad Sucks' Time To Take Out the Trash, Lab Waste offers a few suggestions of what can be done:

I made this video as a creative outlet and to try and raise some awareness of all the disposables in the lab, and give some mild suggestions on how to reduce the pile of trash by a tiny amount.

There's no finger pointing, just good, common sense re-use and recycling, seen through the lens of, in this case, a life sciences lab. Some favourites:

  • Wash and reuse materials that don't need to be sterile (pipettes for non-sterile buffers).
  • Avoid unnecessary disposables.
  • Use the smallest materials for your needs.
  • Design your experiments well: don't waste your time and materials.
  • Buy second-hand lab equipment if possible.


In keeping with the spirit of re-use, every image, every sound effect, every piece of music in the film is Creative Commons licensed, with detailed credits.

Amsen sensitizes with a hip sensibility, without disguising the difficulties in finding substitutes for our current practices. Lab Waste is both conversation starter, and a useful lesson in how the problems of starting to reshape a piece of our material culture can be engaged artistically.

First Inside and Outside Photo Credit: flickr/alist, Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic license.
Second Inside Photo Credit: flickr/mark lorch, Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic license.
Film Credit, used with permission: Eva Amsen, posted on Vimeo with a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.

Article from WorldChanging Canada

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I worked in a lab as a student and we often remarked at how much waste we generated. The lab was filled with environmentalists (perhaps not surprising given that it was in the department of plant pathology) and every time we had to throw out equipment it seemed needlessly wasteful. Ultimately however we needed to maintain sterility. If you consider that one false mistake can ruin months or even years of experimentation you find that it's hard to take risks. Losing a year’s worth of experimentation can mean death to a project and any environmental benefits that might have come from that research.

Posted by: Eniryt Manaen on 17 Oct 08

I work in research labs and think our reliance on disposable everything has a more insidious downside. We are all relying on very long and complex supply lines to provide the dozens of disposables and reagents we need for every basic procedure. How often do we find a process delayed because one critical component is missing? What if we couldnt just order another one? The need to do dozens of multiple steps to yield a useful result exposes how vulnerable research science is to economic disfunction.

Posted by: Shane on 20 Oct 08



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