Reducing Lab Waste

Material waste from clinical and research laboratories results in significant environmental pollution and unnecessary costs to our nation’s healthcare system. More vigilance is necessary in the use and disposal of plastic consumables, in particular. Who can lead the charge? Experts agree that the responsibility needs to fall in the laps of scientists and laboratory professionals as well as product manufacturers.

“Scientists are aware of the amount of waste coming from labs and have the intention to be more sustainable,” explained Spencer Ferguson, technical sales specialist at Grenova, LLC. “It’s just a matter of giving them the means to do so.” Reducing Lab Waste

Appealing to the sensibility of the people behind the experiments and tests will yield the best results. “We ask lab professionals to pause for a second and ask themselves, ‘is this the best choice?’ before using a consumable,” stated Allison Paradise, executive director of My Green Lab. “It’s almost always a habit, and not a conscious decision, to use plastic.”

According to Paradise, most scientists wouldn’t choose the most wasteful path if they knew they had a choice. “We encourage lab professionals to make educated decisions-without interfering with the science, of course,” she said.

My Green Lab, a nonprofit organization that promotes green practices and environmentally friendly technology in science labs, places responsibility on the manufacturers and the scientists. “We work with manufacturers to take back products that have been used, and to use recycled products,” Paradise explained. “We educate them about being more environmentally responsible.”

“It helps to offer an alternative when asking labs to take a look at reducing waste,” Paradise said. “People need a follow-up solution.” My Green Lab promotes sustainability in labs in a way that its suggestions have a path toward implementation.

What’s the Damage?
The typical laboratory disposes of several thousand pipette tips every day. Faced with a dearth of options, labs are responsible for more than 5 million pounds of plastic pipette tips piling up in landfills annually. “Some of it can be recycled, and some of it didn’t need to be used in the first place,” commented Paradise.

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Concerns range from the hazards of plastic leaching into the ground to the dangers of landfills becoming full. Furthermore, a large portion of the plastic labs buy is virgin plastic. “Then it becomes a vicious cycle of using more and more resources,” Paradise observed. Armed with an undergraduate degree from Brown University and a master’s in neuroscience from Harvard, she is passionate about the cause.

High consumption of plastic tips tacks $25,000 to $1.5 million on laboratories’ annual operational costs, explained Ferguson, who formerly worked as a tech specialist in a clinical lab and has witnessed firsthand the amount of waste generated in a single lab.

Grenova, one of the first laboratory automation manufacturers to provide green technology solutions that help reduce plastic waste output, designs its products based on the premise that labs’ high consumption of plastic tips is an excessive, avoidable operational cost as well as a significant contributor to environmental pollution. “Plastic consumables are on the rise concurrently with the growth of labs and their use of materials,” said Ferguson.

What Options Do Labs Have?
Paradise explains that what can be recycled/reused depends on the application. “In certain instances, such as doing a prep to isolate DNA or RNA or other preparations that have waste associated with them, rather than using plastic and throwing it away, we recommend using glassware whenever possible,” she said.

The message, according to Paradise, is to rethink the use of plastic and remove it from the default option. Glassware is a preferred alternative because it can be easily reused and recycled.

When a lab must use plastic and other items, it’s helpful to know what can be recycled. Often, cell-culture bottles, pipette tip boxes and pipette tips in some instances, can all be recycled. Paradise encourages labs interested in waste reduction to look into recycling at their facilities. “Many waste management companies are starting to pick up #1 and #2 plastics from labs,” she said.

The policies at waste management companies have been updated recently, so even if a lab looked into recycling three years ago, it’s worth a new look. Paradise pointed out that hospitals have regulations that may make it more difficult to get materials out of the lab. “In research environments, it’s easier to get waste out and recycled,” she qualified.

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