Environmental impact

How has our project adapted to be environmentally concious?



Asssessing our environmental impact

Synthetic biology is a new and exciting scientific field that has shaped many areas of research and innovation within the past few decades. The potential environmental risks and hazards for synthetic biology have not been fully explored, and little to no specific legislation has been enforced as of yet. Horizontal gene transfer, depletion of environment, competition with native species, pathogenicity, toxicity, bioterrorism, and biosecurity are all unpredictable risk factors to consider within synthetic biology and gene editing.​[1] With possible impact being unclear and unknown, we thought it was essential for environmental considerations to be entwined within the process of our project. We decided that it would be beneficial for our project, and for many future iGEM projects to come, to develop an environmental assessment for synthetic biology.

After brief communication with an environmental lawyer, our first consideration was to carry out a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) to evaluate the environmental impact of our process and potential product. LCAs consider the impact of industry on ecology throughout each stage of a project, in terms of resources and emissions.[2]

Each individual step is analysed and a cyclical understanding of the process from 'cradle to grave' is understood. As synthetic biology involves gene editing and unknown biological consequences, it blurs the lines of the cycle.[2] Capability of harm, degree of risk and probability of exposure is difficult to determine within synthetic biology.[1] When the reproductive process of an organism is edited and new genetic information is provided, a LCA would not be appropriate for analysis. This being considered, we researched other environmental risk assessing methods. The United States Environmental Protection Agency provide a 'Sustainable Materials Management' proposal, similar to LCA, in which material extraction, manufacturing, distribution, usage, and end-of-life waste management are considered. Although not currently applied to synthetic biology, we wanted to consider the same stages and principles within our design process.

L. Bohua et. al. proposed an'Ethical framework on risk governance of synthetic biology' in The Journal of Biosafety and Biosecurity in early 2023. They suggest combining strategies from Solution Focused Risk Assessments (SFRAs), Bayesian Networks (BNs) and Network of Network assessments to analyse biosafety, biosecurity, and environmental risk factors.[1]

By applying an integration of these three assessments to synthetic biology, we would consider regulation of sensitisation, pathogenicity, biological stability, and exposure routes, to avoid adverse effects.[1]​ Four essential stakeholders would be taken into consideration: scientists, regulators, local communities, and environmental groups.[5] This allows for integrated two-way conversation between all benefitting actors, collaborating to cause the greatest amount of good.

The solution focused risk assessment proposed by L. Bohua et. al. was based upon the work of Adam Finkel, a clinical professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Michigan. The assessment is based on weighing up risk and benefit based on sustainability, environmental impact, synthetic biology risk and economic impact.[1]​ The following process outlines the procedure.
Solution focused risk assessment

The ‘net benefit’ within this model is calculated regarding sustainability (land use, resource availability, geography, climate), environmental impacts (gas emissions, water requirements), economic impact (production costs, direct and indirect employment rates), and potential for new risk (environmental, legal, and technological associated risks).[7] The only issue with this model is that it is somewhat subjective and hard to quantify.

The proposed Bayesian Network assessment method was established by Wayne G. Landis, a professor at the Institute of Environmental Toxicology at Western Washington University. This method involves the use of a sources-> stressor-> habitat pathway alongside a location-> effects-> impacts pathway.[8] The only issue with this method is the difficulty in holistically incorporating all factors.

Bayesian Network
‘Network of Networks’ is a risk governance concept proposed by Novossiolova, Bakanidz and Perkins to examine all stakeholders and integrate their perspectives into a feedback system to achieve “comprehensive and practical risk governance”.[9]​ This vast involvement is based upon the ideology that society is built through many factors, and the failure of one causes the failure of all (finance, politics, culture, infrastructure, strategic reserves, science and technology).[9] Although time consuming, this process successfully leads to collaboration between industry, academia, and all relevant stakeholders. [10]


After taking time to considering all discussed assessments, values, and stakeholders, the following environmental analysis was designed:

Our Environmental Analysis Design

After this assesment had been formed, we assessed our own project as follows:

The assesment of our project

While carrying out the assessment, we found it necessary to analyse our electrical usage, plastic consumption and carbon dioxide emissions (through travel) for our laboratory work in greater depth. All air mileage, flight paths and transport methods were analysed for each DNA order into the lab:

Carbon footprints and impact of transport

When lab-based research was responsible for producing 5.5 million tonnes of plastic waste in 2014 alone, and is estimated to produce nearly 2% of all global plastic waste, it seemed essential for us to be aware of our plastic consumption.[11] It is vital that humans reduce our plastic usage and waste before we pollute the only world we have. To make changes and attempt to reduce our plastic use we attempted to identify the single use plastics that produce the most plastic waste. To this we conducted an audit measuring every single use consumable we used in the lab over two weeks (10 working days). Each time an iGEM member came out the lab they reported what consumables they threw away. From this we can keep track of each consumable to find our total single use consumable use and a comparative tool for identifying the biggest waste producers. The number of consumables is not a true representation of the plastic waste produced as different consumables have vastly different wastes, for example using 1 petri dish produces the same mass of waste plastic as using 100 spreaders (petri dish – 10g, Spreader - 0.1g). Due to this discrepancy, to get a true representation of the waste produced we needed to include the masses of the consumables in our reporting. Once we had these and had finished the audit, we had measured a total of 10.23 kg of plastic waste which can be seen broken down in the interactive graph and tables below.

Click on the dates below the graph to see the plastic consumption for that day.

1.5ml eppendorf
2ml eppendorf
gene jet
50ml falcon tube
lysing mat
15ml falcon tube
petri dish
96 well plate
innoculation loop
weighing boat
autoclave bag
pasteur pipette
syringe filter
latex gloves
nitrile gloves
red pipette tips
yellow pipette tips
blue pipette tips

Plastic usage pie chart

Our top producers were identified and listed in the following table with useful extrapolations to grasp the scale of the issue.

Plastic Consumable Audit mass/kg Extrapolated to 13 weeks/kg Extrapolated to 400 iGEM teams/kg
1. Blue pipette tips 4.1184 26.7696 10707.84
2. Petri dishes 1.815 11.7975 4719
3. 50ml Falcon tubes 1.325 8.6125 3445
4. Nitrile gloves 0.835 5.4275 2171
5. 96 well plates 0.63 4.095 1638

We then identified areas to improve how we use these items to reduce and taking action in areas we could as well as simply giving advice when we did not have power to make changes. We put up specifically designed posters encouraging responsible plastic consumption. We also advise increasing the availability of smaller petri dish sizes and lab members using the smallest petri dish possible for that experiment. Whilst many consumables are autoclavable, and reusable there just is insufficient man-hours and funding for this to be realistically done in the lab. For example, tip washers are available, but expensive and need hands on time to use which researchers simply don’t have. The following shows the full audit:

Plastic audit

Conclusions and next steps

After reviewing the data, we instantly realised that our plastic consumption needed to be reduced. Several members of our team admitted to using, and discarding after use, Falcon tubes for samples of water or phosphate buffered saline (PBS), when they could have used a Duran bottle or conical flask. Several members also acknowledged that they were changing their gloves very often, when they didn't necessarily need to.

Throughout the experiment, our team became greatly aware of the extent of our plastic consumption. Moving forward we wanted to make more environmentally conscious decisions within our project, but also agreed to educate other lab users on our findings. We hope that raising awareness on plastic consumption will help to reduce overall plastic usage in our area. To do this, we made four different posters and displayed them throughout our laboratory and building which you can see at the bottom of the Conclusion

We decided to use our experience of studying plastic consumption to aid other teams in taking their own audits. This would allow iGEM to become a more sustainable research environment, and raise awareness of plastic usage during laboratory work.

Advice on Plastic Auditing For Future iGEM Teams

In terms of air delivery, we were pleasantly suprised by how low our CO2 consumption was. When the weight of each delivery and infrequency of order is taken into account, our environmental damage is minimal. To make sure that we keep our CO2 consumption low, we will make sure anything that can be delivered to us from the UK, will be.


Click each poster to open a larger version

Photos of the posters displayed within our building:


  1. Bohua L, Yuexin W, Yakun O, Kunlan Z, Huan L, Ruipeng L. Ethical framework on risk governance of synthetic biology. J Biosaf Biosecur. 2023 Jun 1;5(2):45–56.Available from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2588933823000201?via%3Dihub
  2. Seager TP, Trump BD, Poinsatte-Jones K, Linkov I. Why Life Cycle Assessment Does Not Work for Synthetic Biology. Environ Sci Technol [Internet]. 2017 Jun 6;51(11):5861–2. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.est.7b01604
  3. van Oppen MJH, Oliver JK, Putnam HM, Gates RD. Building coral reef resilience through assisted evolution. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [Internet]. 2015;112(8):2307–13. Available from: https://www.pnas.org/doi/abs/10.1073/pnas.1422301112
  4. Wright O, Stan GB, Ellis T. Building-in biosafety for synthetic biology. Microbiology (N Y). 2013 Jul 1;159(Pt_7):1221–35.
  5. Howell Emily L. and Scheufele DA and BD and XMA and KS and YJ and SP. Scientists’ and the Publics’ Views of Synthetic Biology. In: Trump Benjamin D. and Cummings CL and KJ and LI, editor. Synthetic Biology 2020: Frontiers in Risk Analysis and Governance [Internet]. Cham: Springer International Publishing; 2020. p. 371–87. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-27264-7_16"
  6. Finkel AM. Designing a ``Solution-Focused’’ Governance Paradigm for Synthetic Biology: Toward Improved Risk Assessment and Creative Regulatory Design. In: Trump Benjamin D. and Cummings CL and KJ and LI, editor. Synthetic Biology 2020: Frontiers in Risk Analysis and Governance [Internet]. Cham: Springer International Publishing; 2020. p. 183–222. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-27264-7_9
  7. Wells Emily and Trump BD and FAM and LI. A Solution-Focused Comparative Risk Assessment of Conventional and Emerging Synthetic Biology Technologies for Fuel Ethanol. In: Trump Benjamin D. and Cummings CL and KJ and LI, editor. Synthetic Biology 2020: Frontiers in Risk Analysis and Governance [Internet]. Cham: Springer International Publishing; 2020. p. 223–55. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-27264-7_10
  8. Landis Wayne G. and Brown EA and ES. An Initial Framework for the Environmental Risk Assessment of Synthetic Biology-Derived Organisms with a Focus on Gene Drives. In: Trump Benjamin D. and Cummings CL and KJ and LI, editor. Synthetic Biology 2020: Frontiers in Risk Analysis and Governance [Internet]. Cham: Springer International Publishing; 2020. p. 257–68. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-27264-7_11
  9. Novossiolova Tatyana and Bakanidze L and PD. Effective and Comprehensive Governance of Biological Risks: A Network of Networks Approach for Sustainable Capacity Building. In: Trump Benjamin D. and Cummings CL and KJ and LI, editor. Synthetic Biology 2020: Frontiers in Risk Analysis and Governance [Internet]. Cham: Springer International Publishing; 2020. p. 313–49. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-27264-7_14
  10. Bailey C. Transgenic Salmon: Science, Politics, and Flawed Policy. Soc Nat Resour [Internet]. 2015;28(11):1249–60. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1080/08941920.2015.1089610
  11. Urbina, M., Watts, A. & Reardon, E. Labs should cut plastic waste too. Nature 528, 479 (2015). Available from: https://doi.org/10.1038/528479c
  12. Created with BioRender.com


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