How To Reduce Waste in the Laboratory
It’s no secret that laboratories produce a lot of waste. In fact, it's estimated that every year the plastic waste alone from labs could cover an area 23x the size of Manhattan ankle deep. And while much of this waste is hazardous, a lot of it isn't - anything that can be thrown in the trash has the potential to have a different end of life.
Below, we’ve outlined a variety of ways for you to reduce waste in the lab starting today!
Conduct a Waste Audit
When it comes to lab waste, one of the most important things to understand is exactly what you’re discarding. To do that, we recommend conducting a waste audit. Start by taking note of what it is that you throw away - not just in your waste bin, but in your recycle bins and solvent waste containers, as well. If you’re able to get an understanding of what you’re throwing away, and how you’re throwing it away, it will help prioritize what you can change.
To conduct a waste audit, record what you have thrown away in your waste bin and your recycling bin at the end of a week - separate out and note the things that were thrown in the waste bin that should have been recycled, and vice versa. In doing so, you’ll understand if people are wasting properly (and help you determine if you need new or different sized bins or better signage). Additionally, you’ll develop an understanding of what products you’re throwing a lot of away. Do you throw away a ton of gloves, pipette tips, and pipette tip boxes? Once this is determined, you will know what your biggest waste streams are, which will help you develop a plan to minimize this waste by eliminating, reducing, reusing, or recycling.
Reduce Product Usage
There are a variety of ways to reduce product usage in your lab, including the below strategies:
Contact your suppliers
Get in touch with your suppliers and let them know that a specific product is creating a lot of waste in your lab, and ask them if they have alternatives that generate less waste. Even if they don’t offer a solution, your feedback will let the supplier know the importance of waste reduction and help them start designing differently. In the end, you can almost always find a new supplier or product that produces less waste in your lab.
Ask your colleagues
Internally, your colleagues at your university or within your company may have alternatives they’re using that create less waste. Start a conversation to create best practice sharing tips!
Additionally, the My Green Lab Ambassador program network is a great resource for best practice sharing with lab professionals from around the world. Learn more about this program here.
Research alternative methods
A great way to reduce waste is to look at the items you’re throwing away and determine if there is a less wasteful option. Did you need to use that single-use item, or could you have worked with a reusable alternative? For example, single-use plastics are often used for preparing media solutions that then get sterilized later. Since sterilization is happening at the end of the preparation process, you can eliminate the single-use item and instead use a glass or reusable measuring device for preparing media.
Reduce packaging & shipping
Scientific products use a lot of packaging, from boxes, to instructions, to double wrapping for sterile products, to shipping boxes with padding. Here are a few things to consider when addressing packaging waste:
To help you identify products that will cut down on waste, check out the My Green Lab ACT label database!
Reuse of products in the lab can be tricky because labs need products to be clean and sterile, but there are many ways labs can get creative to reuse waste. How can you rethink the steps in what you’re doing to use less materials? Here are a few thought starters.
Labs receive a lot of packaging items like coolers, gel packs, dry ice, and so on. Think about alternative ways to reuse these items.
Freezers also work the best and use the least amount of energy when they’re full. If you have a freezer that is half full, and you can’t share the space with someone else, using gel packs to fill up that space is a great way to keep your freezer working well.
Spread the word!
If your lab can’t reuse supplies, spread the word that you have extra products! Find a partnership with a local community college or high school to ensure that they find a home. Or, put up a bulletin board or start an email list within your company or community to share extraneous items.
This applies not only to lab supplies and products, but equipment and furniture, too.
It’s important to ensure that when you’re recycling, you’re recycling correctly. Remember: if you’re not putting the right things in the recycling bin, they’re not getting recycled at all.
This is where a waste audit will help you understand if proper recycling is happening in your lab. We also recommend creating clear signage with pictures of products that go in the recycling bin so there is no confusion. You can work with your organization or recycler to figure out which products your lab uses that can be recycled. You may also contact your suppliers to evaluate which products are recyclable, but remember that your local recycling hauler will have the final say on what is collected, sorted, and ultimately recycled.
Solvent Waste Recycling
Did you know there are options to recycle solvents? Labs that use specific solvents frequently can set up distillation systems to clean that particular solvent - common solvents which are simple to recycle include acetone, xylene, and acetonitrile. There is also commercial solvent recovery equipment available for purchase that can be purified. For example, the University of Colorado Boulder recycles solvents in their laboratories with this equipment. Specifically, they collect ethanol waste from the chemistry labs, clean it, and provide it to the biology labs who then use it to sterilize surfaces. What a creative recycling solution!
There are also companies that recycle solvents on a large institutional scale. You can inquire with your hauler/collector to see if they provide these services.
For waste streams that you’re unable to recycle, there are a number of programs now available that will recycle for you, including:
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