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Plastic Waste in Life Sciences Laboratories

Tackling Waste: 5 Steps to Less Plastic Waste in the Lab

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Recycle — why not in the lab as well?

In Germany, it is perfectly normal to separate waste into different garbage containers so that it can be recycled — “green” bins, bins for paper/cardboard recyclables, and yellow waste sacks for recyclable plastics. The situation is often different in the lab, where plastic waste is not always recycled and instead ends up in the general residual waste, which is then burned in a waste incineration plant so that the resulting energy can be used in downstream processes. For potentially contaminated single-use products like reaction tubes, cell culture dishes or pipette tips, this makes sense from the point of safety considerations and is a legal requirement.

But many uncontaminated products, which are also made of unmixed, high-quality plastics, could be sorted out from the waste without any problems and then recycled. These valuable raw materials are irretrievably lost when waste is disposed of using incineration methods. The following cases are examples that show a number of alternative possibilities:

  • Takebacks for recycling of sorted, single-type materials: pipette tip racks that are made of a single plastic, e.g. PET or PP, and are not contaminated, can be disposed of as “yellow waste” in Germany. Companies like Starlab make it even easier by offering customers a dedicated takeback service for all racks made of single-type, high-quality polypropylene [11]. These are collected and either given back out to customers to use with the refilling system, or sent to a disposal firm for recycling, e.g. in the UK. Although it is technically not yet possible to manufacture new pipette tip racks from the PP taken from old racks, recycled polypropylene can be found in many durable products, such as, pallets or garden furniture [12].
  • Lab gloves: According to a waste management audit at the University of Washington, lab gloves can account for around 23% of the total lab waste that needs to be disposed of [13], and particularly in cell and molecular biology labs scientists often use several pairs in a single day. However, many of the gloves that are used and thrown away are not contaminated and could easily be recycled. For this reason, Lisa Anderson — a PhD student at UC Davis — launched an initiative for recycling nitrile gloves. After just one year, a total of 2.2 tons of lab gloves had been recycled [14]. She took advantage of the takeback program offered by Kimberly-Clark [15], under which nitrile gloves can be returned and recycled — and this program is also available in Germany. The recycled plastic is then used to manufacture transport crates or park benches [16].
  • Products with recycled plastic materials: Takeback programs and recycling are not the only option — the reverse path is also possible. Some manufacturers use recycled plastic in their products, thereby reducing the use of raw materials and resources. It goes without saying that this is only possible on lab products that do not have the highest quality requirements, for example laboratory flasks [17] or reaction vessel stands [18].

Despite the takeback programs, recycling of single-type plastics and the development of products with a certain proportion of secondary raw materials, downcycling still dominates as the main method of waste disposal. In order to arrive at a genuinely closed, circular economy of the type described by the “cradle-to-cradle” approach, we need to develop corresponding materials that are fully capable of being recycled and allow us to manufacture a product of the same quality again from all the waste we collect. The EU is attempting to promote this approach with its “Strategy for Plastics in the Circular Economy” [19]. Key issues here include the support for and promotion of recycling-friendly designs and the production of environmentally friendly plastics.

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