Science Waste

In the weekly meetings of my graduate seminar on Marine Pollution this semester, topics like plastic pollution, derelict fishing gear, and noise pollution stimulated a great amount of discussion among fellow graduate students. During a lot of these (sometimes heated) discussions, buzzwords like “policy”, “sustainability”, “funding”, or “public awareness” came up frequently as we put our heads together to figure out what could be done to manage and mitigate marine pollution. This seminar taught me a lot about how intertwined policy is with a lot of these marine pollutants, whereas before I tended to focus on the ecological effects each pollutant had. Beyond that, however, this seminar pushed me to reflect on how I contribute to the problem—both as a scientist and as a human.

I’ve taken measures at home to reduce the amount of waste I produce by recycling (glass containers to cups), reusing grocery bags, and reducing the amount of plastic-packaged goods I buy. While these things are easy enough for anyone to do in their day-to-day life, the simple switch may not be as apparent for scientists. I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to reuse a lot of materials from colleagues for my experiments, but many scientists do not have that option. Take geneticists for example—there is no non-plastic alternative the petri dishes or pipette tips they use in their research. Because so much of their research is sensitive to contamination, the prospect of reusing any of those materials becomes practically impossible (see picture below from our research in Moorea).

To a lesser degree, field ecologists face a similar issue; the amount of PVC piping, zipties, tiles, and general hardware we use is absolutely insane! For marine (and likely terrestrial) experiments, we build rigs, quadrats, and permanent transects, put them in the field, and hope they’re still there when we come back. From my experience, much of this material does not get reused, mainly because of the grunt work (*cough* undergraduates *cough*) required to clean and prep materials for redistribution into the field. Even then, there’s probably a good amount of experimental gear that gets lost at sea and accumulates somewhere.

Okay, so maybe as individual scientists we may not toss that much into the ocean to do our research, but think about how much marine research is going on worldwide answering all sorts of fun questions about ocean acidification, oil spills, invasive species, etc…it all adds up pretty quickly. This, along with the carbon footprint we make through travel to/from research sites and conferences (see Casey’s blog post about your ESA footprint), means that we don’t necessarily practice as much as we preach. That’s not to say you should limit your research by only using recycled materials, just that sustainability should be factored into the experiment somehow. Think about that next time you’re scrubbing stubborn barnacles or gooey tunicates off of field instruments.

Just *half* of the waste we produced from our DNA extractions

P.S. Melissa and I are in Moorea, French Polynesia right now researching the coral microbiomes of a widespread coral with several color morphs (last year’s trip post). Even though we’re only halfway through our extractions (and we’re conserving pipette tips where possible), we’re still producing a substantial amount of plastic waste, and can’t deal with our trash the same way as the resident tahitans do (burning daily/weekly in their yards).


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