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Public Health Wales investigates ways to reduce Carbon Emissions from Microbiology Labs

Published: 22 April

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

This report not only demonstrates PHWs commitment to environmental sustainability but also highlights the pivotal role that small-scale actions can play in mitigating our 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 this 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. 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, remarked, "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, echoed this sentiment, emphasising the importance of sustainable practices in laboratory operations, “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, Life Cycle 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 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. Notably, several recommendations have already been implemented, including small trials for recycling plastic pipette tip boxes and utilising sustainable spreading sticks. 

Nevertheless, the transition away from single-use plastics presents significant challenges, including navigating existing procurement frameworks and ensuring seamless service delivery. However, the enthusiasm and commitment demonstrated by microbiology staff emphasises the collective determination to champion sustainability within laboratory settings. 

This collaboration between Public Health Wales and Revolution-ZERO marks a significant step forward in addressing the challenges of single-use plastics in microbiology labs. By harnessing innovation and fostering collaboration, this project is an excellent example of a proactive approach to reducing environmental impact and advancing sustainable practices in healthcare settings.