Mauricio Urbina was trying to save the planet on the day he realized he was simultaneously destroying it. A biologist who studies the bodies of fish and other sea creatures, Urbina was working on a project to understand what happens to crabs that eat tiny particles of plastic waste thrown out by careless humans. But after one particularly long day in the lab, he looked down and noticed — he was a careless human. A lot of his tools were plastic and would be thrown out after a single use, contributing to the stream of waste packing landfills and polluting waterways. He was working on the solution, but he was part of the problem.

The process of doing scientific research — even the kind of research dedicated to environmental sustainability — isn’t always environmentally sustainable itself. But even as scientists try to make their profession more green, they’re finding themselves struggling with a problem that’s familiar far beyond the halls of academia: How do you live sustainably when the things you need to live are often, by their very nature, unsustainable?

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