Can you imagine biology and chemistry developing without glass? Historically, the first glass objects date to around 3500 BC. There are now thousands of types of man made glass. The primary type used in labware is borosilicate glass. Although sometimes 100% silica glass is used for heat and acid resistant labware. Chemical solutions can be produced, handled and stored in glass because of its heat resistant, chemically resistant, superior optics and durable properties. In the 1940s cell culture techniques were developed using glass flasks and roller tubes. (Thank you for the polio vaccine, Salk and Ender labs!) Fast forward to today, and we are still developing this material's scientific utility. For instance, a luminescent type of“Smart Glass” has been developed, that could be used by neuroscientists in brain procedures. Another transparent glass made with zinc oxide nanoparticles has been designed for selective toxicity to prokaryotic cells. Also, focus ion beam “micromachined” glass pipettes have been developed for improved cell microinjection techniques. New glass utilities are still being developed, while lab work continues to depend on glassware, on a grand scale.
Let's consider glass from an labconscious viewpoint. First of all, by switching to glass, you will not be dumping tons of single use plastics into the environment. Glass is chemically inert, non toxic and fully recyclable. In fact, glass is uniquely capable of being able to be recycled again and again – cost effectively. It's a material with a healthy carbon footprint and overall “life cycle”. These points highlight the impact that can be made by using glassware instead of plastic ware.
Glass volumetric pipettes are a good place to start. You might be hesitant to give up the reliability and convenience of plastic tissue culture flasks, but converting from plastic to glass volumetric pipettes is smart and achievable. Very few adjustments are necessary to user work areas, be it under the hood, or at the bench. Pipette sterilization boxes can be stored in a rack under the cell culture hood, or at the lab bench. Keep a pair of forceps handy to first remove cotton plugs. Immerse pipettes into a pipet jar of mild bleach solution. Glassware departments can do the rest. This 3 minute video by Abnova.com demos how glass pipets can be processed for re-use (1). They finish clean, sterilized and nuclease free. Vendors also provide detergents and technical guides like this one from Sigma Aldrich on how to properly clean glassware(2). The modern machines and techniques for pipette cleaning and sterilization are standardized. The glass pipette use of our early 20th century predecessors is a good, sustainable choice for today.
*This image is of my favorite painting The Experiment With An Air Pump by Joseph Wright 1768. The figures in this masterpiece express the many ways people view scientific progress. Inside the glass bowl is a bird. The equipment creates a vacuum that will suffocate the bird. Oxygen was identified a few years later. As a viewer you are met with the scientist's gaze that questions, should I or shouldn't I? And so today, we must also weigh the consequences of our work. Credit: Wikimedia