Before you invest in that new “green” computer or purchase those fun solar deck lights, read this insider’s perspective from Fake Plastic Fish reader Alyssa J. Pasquale and consider whether buying new technology is ever truly green. If you have an idea for a guest post, please contact me and let me know. I’d love to feature more of your ideas here!
I would first like to thank Beth for allowing me to write this guest post. My name is Alyssa and I am a PhD candidate at a very large university in Boston. I work in electrical engineering and have a focus on photonic devices. These are generally nanometer-scale devices that use light to do something cool. Some people in my department work on biological sensors, some on solar cells, some on lasers, and some on LEDs.
I’ve been doing research for a long time (I started as an undergrad) and one thing that’s prevalent in my work is lots and lots of waste. As I told Beth, I find it awfully ironic that the technology that is being hailed by many as able to save the world is such a large producer of toxic waste. And people who don’t work in R&D or in high tech industry might not be aware of what goes into your LED flashlight or the laser that does your eye surgery.
Being a PhD candidate can be disillusioning in many ways. Not only are you constantly surrounded by many of extremely intelligent people who know more than you, but you learn about all of the limitations of everything. LEDs will always consume power. Solar cells will never be 100% efficient. Lasers will never be perfectly coherent. In other words, nothing comes for free.
My work brings me into a class 1000 clean room quite often. (A class 1000 clean room means that there are 1000 particles of dust allowed in any cubic foot of airspace. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s clean!) This is probably the area of my research that creates the most waste, and much of it is plastic. What follows is a list of the plastic things that I interact with in the clean room, as well as whether or not it’s reusable, disposable, or can be reused.
(Shown in photo: two bouffant caps, four nitrile gloves, a few strips of Parafilm, one small wiper, one petri dish with lid, one gel pack sample holder.)
REUSABLE (Routinely reused.)
o Gowns, booties & hoods — It is mandatory to wear a gown when you enter a clean room. It is not to protect you from chemicals; it is to protect the clean room from all of your skin cells! The ones in my lab are made of 99% polyester and 1% carbon. (I don’t know why they have carbon in them.) These are washed once a week and are returned individually shrink-wrapped in plastic disposable baggies (to keep dust out during transit, presumably).
o Goggles — These are likely made from polycarbonate.
o Face shield — Probably made from polycarbonate, these are important to wear when working with dangerous chemicals. The last thing you want to get is acid splashing on your face. They’re also a joy to wear when you have on glasses and goggles and your glasses start sliding down and you can’t touch your face. (Not.)
o PTFE tweezers — When working with acids and bases, you need an inert material to use as a tweezer because metal will corrode. PTFE is polytetrafluroethylene, better known as Teflon.
o Beakers — As I said before, some chemicals etch glass, so if you have to pour them out it has to be into a plastic jar.
MIGHT BE REUSED
o Sample holders — These can be simple like plastic petri dishes or more complicated gel packs that have a layer of sticky gel to keep samples from sliding around.
o Protective equipment covers — These are like the film that comes over your cell phone screens. I’m not sure what exactly it’s made of but I’d be shocked if it’s not plastic. These are to protect equipment from any chemicals that may be on our nitrile gloves.
o Heavy duty chemical gloves — These are for when you work with heavy duty chemicals. The plastic it’s made of depends on which you buy. Some can be PVC, Neoprene or heavy duty latex. Nitrile gloves are thin and easily eaten by acids. Heavy duty gloves can generally be reused until they start to break down after too much chemical exposure.
o Chemical jugs — Most chemicals we buy are in plastic jugs, some in glass. Some chemicals (such as HF) absolutely have to be in plastic because they etch glass. There are only two chemicals (out of many) that I use in glass jars, most come in plastic. We reuse them as waste jars but I honestly have no idea what happens to them after that.
o Pipettes & wrappers
o Clean room wipers — These are pieces of “paper” that we use to wipe up chemicals, or write notes about things as we’re working. I was astonished to find out that they are not really paper, but a mix of 55% cellulose and 45% polyester. They are not supposed to release any fibers (dust) into the air, and cannot be easily ripped (if you do manage to rip one, no fibers are released, unlike what happens when you rip paper).
o Bouffant caps — Made from 100% polypropylene, these protect the clean room from hair. (They are like hair nets that food service workers use.)
o Nitrile gloves — The clean room uses nitrile gloves. Other facilities use latex gloves but I’m not sure if they are natural or synthetic. Nitrile gloves are a synthetic rubber copolymer.
o Parafilm — This is a thermoplastic used to seal jars and bottles.
o Tape — We use a lot of plastic tape in the lab. Vacuum tape and double sided tape are very popular.
That list just encompasses the plastic that is generated due to clean room work. It doesn’t consider any of the other waste, such as the HUGE amounts of chemical waste. (In one day I can easily use acetone, methanol, isopropanol, polymer resins, methyl isobutyl ketone, tetramethyl ammonium hydroxide, hydrochloric acid, hydrogen peroxide, potassium iodide, hydrofluoric acid, and a lot of de-ionized water. Not to mention the gases — sulfur hexafluoride, methane, nitrogen, oxygen, argon, tri-fluoromethane, etc. etc.)
There is also a lot of plastic that comes with the life of a grad student. We’re constantly buying supplies, and most of the time they come in plastic. Chemicals especially need a lot of isolation in shipping and will generally have many layers of foam, plastic, vermiculite, and lots of warning labels to keep upright. Computers come with plastic towers (and we use a lot of computers).
Seminars and other such meetings are held an awful lot in my building, and there is also plastic waste related with this. The department provides bottled water and sodas at some events (fortunately, some events have reusable beverage urns). For some strange reason the lemons for the tea are always wrapped in plastic wrap. The food is put on plastic trays (which I assume are reused). Crackers are sometimes served and they come in plastic sleeves.
Not to mention the lifestyle of being a grad student. While I personally use my flexible hours to ensure that I have enough time to home cook all of my meals (and I always bring in lunch in a glass container with a plastic — oops — lid), many grad students opt for take-out. There’s a Subway that’s not far from my building, and many students come in between noon and one with a plastic bag holding a giant sandwich. Lots of students consume lots of bottled water. I know of a few students with Nalgene bottles or reusable coffee mugs. I have a SIGG bottle. One of my office-mates actually keeps a Brita filter on his desk. But most opt for bottled water even though we have perfectly good water fountains on every floor.
So next time you buy or read about a newly engineered “green” product — such as an LED lighting device — think about what went into it. While better than older alternatives, I wouldn’t call most technology “green” at all. Although it may sound hypocritical coming from an engineer, there’s a lot to be said for old-fashioned technology.