Plastics are versatile, durable, and easy to produce. We carry them everywhere and dispose of them just about anywhere. More than 60 million plastic bottles end up in the trash every day. Now, with China no longer accepting nearly as many of America’s recyclables, more plastic is ending up where it shouldn’t.
Depending on their composition, plastics can take hundreds of years, even a thousand, to fully decompose.
Committed to sustainability, American University has become the first carbon neutral university in the United States. However, saving the future of the planet does not stop with AU’s administration.
Professors like Dr. Katie DeCicco-Skinner, chair of the Department of Biology, understand that it is everyone’s responsibility to make the world a cleaner place. Last spring, the biology department switched over from traditional plastic procedure gloves to entirely biodegradable gloves.
“As a scientist, I see how much plastic waste we generate on a daily basis. And most of it is just single use,” DeCicco-Skinner said. “Unfortunately we need to use plastics. We need to protect ourselves from pathogens with gloves. We need to use pipette tips and pipe boxes and PCR tubes. And unfortunately right now, all those plastics they make are just not biodegradable. So when all of a sudden I saw this company selling biodegradable gloves, it just excited me.”
That company is Peak Serum, a common research supplier to labs and universities across the nation. DeCicco-Skinner realized the positive impact switching one item could have on for the entire department.
“I went back and calculated that our department uses about 15,000 pairs of gloves per year, and the average glove takes over 100 years to biodegrade. These new gloves are 100 percent biodegradable and decompose over an average of three years. That’s a lot of time saved,” she said.
Despite best efforts to separate non-hazardous waste from hazardous waste, there is still concern over where the plastics do finally end up after we’ve ‘recycled’ conical tubes, plastic tips, etc. This concern doesn’t start and stop in American University’s labs alone – the issue is on the minds of scientists across the globe.
A moral quandary arises: how can a lab be aiding people while simultaneously accumulating massive amounts of waste?
The answer rests in biodegradable products that are becoming more important for scientists to utilize fully in place of harmful plastics. As of right now, Peak Serum only offers biodegradable gloves, but that is a step in the right direction towards more biodegradable products that sidestep the recycling process.
DeCicco-Skinner hopes the rest of AU’s science departments will go to biodegradable gloves as well.
“I’ve already spoken to other science departments on campus – all of them, actually. And I know the environmental science department was excited about switching gloves. I’m really hoping that some of the other science departments follow suit,” she said.
DeCicco-Skinner donated boxes of gloves to every science department at AU in hopes that they would follow the biology department’s lead. “I hope to see more plastics become biodegradable in the future. Hopefully, this is just the start,” she said.