On Lab Safety and Sustainability: Common Lab Waste That Can Be Recycled
Laboratories use and consume a large amount of materials and energy due to the nature and scope of the work completed in these environments. But it is not just the raw materials and by-products that contribute to laboratory waste challenges. On a daily basis, laboratory personnel must handle and interact with hazardous materials and chemicals like biological materials, flames, acids, solvents, and more. These occupational hazards demand that lab workers require not only specialized equipment but specialized safety clothing and accessories, as well. Taking all these factors into account, it becomes obvious why the world's private, public, and academic laboratories are producing such large amounts of waste.
What is less obvious, however, is that many of these waste products are actually recyclable. By raising awareness about recyclable waste products and other sustainability practices, the laboratory industry has the potential to decrease its negative impact on the global environment.
Keep reading to learn more about commonly discarded lab waste that can be recycled, as well as some barriers that might be standing in the way of laboratories that wish to improve their sustainability.
Common Sources of Laboratory Waste
Common sources of lab waste include expired, contaminated, and/or otherwise damaged reagents and chemicals; broken and/or used bottles and glassware; used syringes and other sharps; bodily fluids and other types of biological waste; broken or outdated equipment like computers; and used oil from pumps and generators. In addition, resources like water and energy are also in high demand within the laboratory industry and can contribute to a lab's hefty environmental and economic impact.
As an example, research indicates that labs produce as much as 12 billion pounds of plastic waste per year globally (to say nothing of the other waste products created in the name of scientific research and innovation). The incredible amount of plastic waste produced in laboratories isn't so hard to imagine; thanks to the incredible need for sterility and safety, many laboratory products and accessories come packaged in single-use plastic containers and wrappers.
Here are some other interesting facts and statistics about lab waste and energy use that should help clarify the extent of the lab sustainability issue:
- A single standard fume hood (of which most chemical laboratories have several) uses more than three times as much energy as one American household in a standard climate
- One recent study found that a typical medical laboratory can produce as much as 8 kilograms of biomedical waste per day
- Autoclave machines, which use steam under pressure to kill harmful pathogens, are capable of consuming up to 50 gallons of water per minute (and often run 24 hours a day, 7 days a week)
- Astronomy labs using highly specialized equipment such as radio arrays and supercomputers are known to have large carbon footprints, emitting several tons of CO2-equivalent emissions per year
Laboratory Sustainability and the Benefits of Recycling Lab Waste
Taking steps to initiate more sustainable practices within the laboratory setting comes with many benefits.
First, at a time when "going green" via sustainable, environmentally-friendly practices and products are becoming more and more important to consumers, recycling lab waste products can be excellent for company image. Not only could a reputational boost help procure more funding, but it could also help laboratories raise awareness about their endeavors and engender greater support among the academic, scientific, and public communities.
A second obvious benefit to recycling lab waste is that it can positively impact the environment. Finding ways to reduce waste and increase energy efficiency can help laboratories significantly decrease their carbon footprint and minimize their contribution to pollution, which has important implications for both environmental and human health.
Lastly, lab waste recycling can be beneficial from a cost-efficiency standpoint. While implementing recycling and sustainability processes might incur some initial up-front costs, especially if there is a need for significant changes to standard workflow and processes, recycling has the potential to offset later costs and save a company money that can be ultimately used to fund more research.
Common Challenges to Recycling Laboratory Waste Products
Of course, even if a company understands the benefits of laboratory recycling, implementing a recycling program doesn't always come easily. Laboratory companies should be aware of common barriers that may stall or prevent their waste recycling efforts.
Here are just a few recycling barriers to consider:
- There is often a misguided belief that lab waste simply cannot be recycled because it has been in contact with contaminated, caustic, toxic, or otherwise hazardous materials. However, this is not necessarily true in all cases.
- Laboratories may lack the resources, processes, infrastructure, or even workplace culture necessary to identify and install waste disposal and recycling strategies.
- Many products used in laboratory settings are made up of a complex array of components, some of which are recyclable and some of which are not. Breaking down components and disposing of each part appropriately may simply seem too demanding or time-consuming, especially in a busy laboratory.
- Local recycling facilities may not be able to provide the specialized handling that would be required for recycling common hazardous waste products like biomedical waste, and the need to transport waste streams to different facilities may hinder a laboratory's cost-effectiveness and efficiency, at least at first.
Finally, remember that the scientific process itself is often inefficient and requires plenty of trial and error. This can put a high demand on product and process utilization. Ideally, laboratories would be able to find a way to champion recycling and sustainability without sacrificing scientific innovation and discovery.
Exploring The Options: Recyclable Lab Waste Streams
Laboratories should resist the urge to simply send all their waste to landfills or an incinerator. To minimize barriers to recycling and enhance company buy-in, stakeholders and decision-makers should feel encouraged to reach out to other sustainable laboratories for guidance and contact local recycling facilities for support.
Labs can also enhance their sustainability by starting small. Here are some common lab products that can be recycled, with or without specialized processes:
- Pipette tip boxes, plastic beakers, and flasks: usually made of easily recyclable plastics like polycarbonate and polypropylene, these products typically require minimal to no pre-recycling disinfection
- Glass vials: these are ready to recycle once caps and labels are removed
- Disposable gloves: believe it or not, there are certain recycling processes (such as The RightCycle™ program from Kimberly Clark) that allow labs to safely recycle disposable single-wear gloves
- Electronic waste (E-waste): disassembling and sorting recyclable components (such as metals, plastics, and glass) from electronic lab equipment like printers and computers is a doable step in any laboratory's quest for sustainability, and typically requires no specialized processes
- Petri dishes and culture plates: by implementing a proper disinfection process, these products are usually quite easy to recycle
- Filter paper: check filter paper composition to ensure these products can be recycled just like other paper products
- Plastic packaging materials: recycling the thin plastic packaging used to protect lab supplies might require connecting with the right recycling plant, but once a relationship is established it could prevent a lab from generating several thousand pounds of plastic waste per year
In addition to exploring lab waste recycling options, laboratories may also gain reputational, financial, and environmental benefits by exploring other ways to boost their sustainability. Here are a few simple ideas to consider:
- Upgrade to energy-efficient LED lighting
- Implement recycling practices into lab workers' daily or weekly workflow
- Maintain routine equipment checks and maintenance
- Share equipment
- Donate unused equipment and chemicals
- Turn off lights and equipment when not in use
- Utilize timers and alter equipment settings to improve efficiency
- Reduce wasteful ordering
- Close fume hood sashes (a 2005 Harvard University campaign to "Shut the Sash" led to a 30 percent reduction in fume hood usage and yielded the academic institution an estimated $240,000 per year in savings, all while reducing their greenhouse gas emissions by 300 metric tons)
Across the globe, billions of pounds of waste products are produced in laboratories every year. These waste products pose a risk to human health and the environment and may also impair a laboratory's reputation and cost-efficiency. The good news is that many laboratory waste products can actually be recycled, often with minimal to no specialized processes.