Sustainable Solutions for Labs Offer a Greener Choice | Corning

To protect the environment and reduce the effects of climate change, many scientists have a strong desire to find sustainable solutions for lab equipment and supplies. This goal can sometimes seem at odds with the daily reality of biomedical research, with waste bins full of single-use gloves, tips, petri plates, and flasks that often need to be autoclaved before they're incinerated or buried in a landfill. The amount of waste produced is massive, with one study from the University of Exeter estimating that the 280 scientists in one department generated around 294 tons of plastic waste in a single year.

Add the need to run lab equipment like freezers and incubators around the clock, and it's no wonder that labs consume five to 10 times more energy per square foot than office buildings. Sustainable lab equipment and adopting green laboratory practices — like removing built-up ice, closing the fume hood, and planning ahead — can add up to make a real difference, just like they do at home.

Single-use products made from virgin plastic provide sterility and unmatched consistency for cell culture and are essential for applications like high throughput screening. However, they are unlikely to become wholly sustainable anytime soon. That said, gradual steps can reduce a lab's environmental impact without compromising the quality of its work.

Finding Greener Options for the Lab

Fisher Scientific's Greener Choice program helps scientists find lab products that best align with their sustainability goals. To earn the "Greener Choice" designation, a product must meet criteria set by the Federal Trade Commission and be environmentally preferable to other products in the same category.

Corning currently has 798 products that have earned the Greener Choice designation. Due to its dedication to providing sustainable solutions, Corning Life Sciences won the Fisher Scientific Award of Excellence in Sustainability for 2022.

The Corning products in the Greener Choice program include 275 different microplates and 165 different flasks, in addition to pipettes, pipettors, filters, microcarriers, and more. Some of these products were specifically designed for sustainability, such as the Corning® T-75 U-Shaped Canted Neck Cell Culture Flask. By using a rounded curve to replace the sharp angular shoulders of a traditional T-flask, this new design improves usability and allows the flask to be made with about 23% less plastic.

Corning is committed to designing for sustainability, which means considering environmental impact at each step in a product's life cycle — manufacturing, shipping, customer use, and end of life. For some containers or cell culture vessels, it's possible to use thinner walls or modify the design to use less plastic. In other cases, improved sustainability can be achieved during the manufacturing process. Compared to similar products, Corning microcavity vessels require fewer molds, processes, and equipment during manufacturing. As an added benefit, the vessels can be used to grow a much higher density of cell culture spheroids in the same traditional microplate footprint.

Process Intensification: Scaling up for Sustainability

While in research and development it's generally a challenge to be more efficient, there are more opportunities for sustainable solutions as projects move toward the production phase. The key is process intensification, which for cell culture means growing more cells in the same footprint.

Much of the plastic in a traditional cell culture flask is used to protect the cells from the outside world, and only a small fraction is required for the growth surface. Through thoughtful engineering, the area available for adherent cell growth can be dramatically increased while maintaining or improving gas exchange. This can greatly reduce the amount of plastic used per unit of cells produced. Depending on the cell culture system used, there may also be a reduction in media required per unit of cells and improved cell growth.

Packaging and the Planet

Sustainable solutions do not stop at product design — they also consider the impact of product packaging. In 2021, the Corning Life Sciences plant in Wujiang, China, started using new shipping boxes that are strong, lightweight, and come from responsibly managed forests. Due to its continued efforts in making supply chains more sustainable, Corning was recognized for Responsible Supplier Program Collaboration during Avantor's 2023 Supplier Awards. Notably, this marked the first time the award has been given out, as Avantor had recently launched its Responsible Supplier Program to evaluate organizations' performance, collaboration, and recognition.

Corning's focus on sustainability has also led to new offerings. For instance, pipette tip racks and lids are designed to be refilled with bulk tips and autoclaved for sterile reuse. When the tip boxes have reached the end of their useful life, they can be recycled at no cost through Corning's Packaging Takeback Program. The program also accepts Styrofoam racks used for 15 ml and 50 ml centrifuge tubes as well as plastic bags and peelable plastic film made from #2 and #4 plastic. The program accepts packaging and not actual products because they may have been used with biohazard materials, liquids, radioactive waste, or other regulated waste.

Tip boxes may be recycled to produce composite boards often used for decks and park benches. This is admittedly an imperfect solution because the composite boards cannot be efficiently recycled with today's technology and will eventually become trash. With this in mind, Corning Life Sciences hosted the first-ever Northeast Single-Use Plastic Circulatory Summit in September 2022 at MIT. In a circular economy, any product that reaches the end of its useful life can be fully recycled to produce a new version of the same product, indistinguishable from the original. This means the material never becomes trash.

Working Together Toward a Common Good

Many challenges must be overcome before used pipette tips and other consumables can be reborn as new pipette tips, but the solution will undoubtedly require numerous stakeholders working together to achieve scale.

"Hosting the summit has opened the door for meaningful conversations with our customers about how Corning's advanced technologies can help us find sustainable industry solutions," explains John Tobin, vice president and general manager of Corning Life Sciences.

In addition to efforts that impact the lab, Corning has been named an ENERGY STAR Partner of the Year by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for the tenth consecutive year. This continued commitment to energy efficiency includes increasing the percentage of energy obtained from renewable sources and reducing energy intensity, which means using less energy to produce the same product.

Learn more about how through these and other efforts Corning is clearing the way for cleaner air, cleaner water, and healthier generations to come.