SustainLABility: Strategies for Reducing Plastic in our University's Laboratories

The University of Edinburgh's scientific research labs are often overlooked in the reduction of plastic waste on campus; this policy brief evaluates three strategies for improvement, advocating a take-back approach for plastic packaging.



University of Edinburgh, Sustainability


Anna Blake

Adrian Gervassi

Niamh Roberts

Tlön Uqbar Orbis Tertius

Ethan Ward

Executive Summary

Bio-scientific research alone is responsible for around 1.8% of total global plastic production (Urbina, 2015). This is a surprisingly high proportion given that researchers make up a small segment of the population. The majority of this plastic goes to landfill, as recycling plants and reuse hubs are hesitant to accept it due to perceived health and safety risks.

Certain departments at the University of Edinburgh (UoE) have taken steps to tackle this issue individually. However, this policy brief demonstrates that a coordinated, institution-wide approach would be more beneficial, striving towards the ultimate aim of University labs taking a unified negotiating position concerning suppliers. That approach meets the University’s general sustainability goals with better efficacy; specifically the ‘Zero by 2040’ initiative, which hopes to achieve University-wide carbon-neutrality (University of Edinburgh Department for Social Responsibility and Sustainability, 2019). This paper investigates the potential benefits and drawbacks of three strategies:

  1. Replacing polystyrene with more sustainable materials, and lobbying suppliers to implement these changes.

  2. Implementing a ‘take-back’ scheme, where plastic packaging is returned to suppliers and reused in future deliveries.

  3. Implementing circular economy solutions whereby packaging is redistributed and reused elsewhere in the university or the wider community.

This coordinated approach would rely heavily on the involvement of the Social Responsibility and Sustainability department (SRS), as they would take a leading role in procurement by surveying suppliers to encourage the business of suppliers who providetake-back schemes (and discourage those who do not), as well as lobbying departments to adopt the third listed approach. Of the three strategies, we have highlighted the second as being the most viable and likely effective. The third strategy is also feasible, but less so as departments may not engage with circular economic practices. Regardless,our research demonstrates it is worth advocating for.

We hope to work with SRS with the goal that our solutions will eventually expand to other universities within Edinburgh city as well as other sectors such as police forensics and medical laboratories.