Earth Day Special: Gray-Space Recycling in the Laboratory

Have you ever wondered about those items that can’t be recycled in a traditional recycling stream? Like chip bags or used pens? What about items in the workplace? Every year, 6 million pounds of non-durable plastics are discarded and end up in landfills or as litter on the streets (67% of street litter in the San Francisco Bay Area is made up of food and beverage packaging), or worse off, end up in the Pacific trash vortex a pool of trash that is leaching chemicals and now even has described its own ecosystem called the Plastisphere.

Figure 1. Visualizing the Impact of our Waste

The average American produces 4.4 pounds of waste per day, equating to about 1,600 pounds per person per year (Figure 1). Consumables, also known as single-use items, have become a part of our everyday lives. Disposable coffee cups. Disposable diapers. Disposable cutlery. And by the way, it turns out plant-based cutlery isn’t as compostable as you may think.

While some items offer more convenience than others, it’s worth reflecting on the life cycle of products we use every day, or in my case, specialty items I use at work in the biotechnology industry. Extrapolating data from a study performed in the bioscience department at University of Exeter, it was found that research scientist produces 5.8 pounds of lab waste per day, equating to about 2,100 pounds per year. This is per research scientist! And there are over 20,500 institutions around the world conducting biological, medical, or agricultural-based research. This means that the average American research scientist cumulatively produces 10.2 pounds of waste each day, generating just as much and more waste at work than at home.

Research laboratories are inherently wasteful. They consume as much as five times more energy than a standard office space due to energy-intensive equipment used in and the ventilation requirements for a safe workspace. One fumehood exchanges air 10-20 times per hour and can use up to 3 times the energy of a single household (yikes!). (A fumehood is a type of ventilation system that limits someone’s exposure to potentially toxic or hazardous material by pulling air up and away, blasting it through building ducting and shooting it far up into the atmosphere.)

Biological research is estimated to account for 1.8% of total plastic consumption worldwide while biologists only represent less than 0.1% of the world’s population. Biology research tends to generate more plastic waste due to the convenience of using pre-sterilized and single-use containers for holding water-based liquids. Chemistry research, on the other hand, generates more hazardous liquid waste.

Consumable plasticware has become an irreplaceable item in the biological research laboratory, offering accuracy in volume transfer, sterility, and, arguably of the most importance, convenience and disposal. These consumables are items like disposable plastic pipette tips (a new one is needed for each individual use to prevent contamination), plastic sample tubes, and plastic Petri dishes for growing cells (header image).

Figure 2. Scientist (Lisa Anderson) wearing Personal Protective Equipment (e.g. nitrile gloves) in a research lab, surrounded by plastic consumables.

Scientists wear personal protective equipment (PPE) such as lab coats, safety glasses, and gloves (Figure 2), to protect samples from themselves, and themselves from the samples. Of these, lab gloves, which are typically made of nitrile, a material similar to latex and whose raw material is sourced from the rubber tree, are treated as single-use disposables. Gloves can become contaminated if exposed to any biological or chemical material, typically through spillage or list sample (this is not that common unless a scientist is really sloppy!).

There are occasions in the lab, where gloves are not contaminated, like when a scientist puts on PPE upon entering the lab space, performs a minor task like loading clean samples onto an instrument. Or maybe, her phone buzzes and she wants to read text message so she needs to de-glove. In an electronics clean-room setting (think computer chip manufacturing), gloves are protection for the sample against dust, body oils, and static, so all gloves are clean! Because of the difficulty associated with putting used gloves back on the hand, the gloves are disposed of. Try putting on a rubber glove, taking it off, and putting it back on again. That last step is not so easy! In the lab, 23% of waste can be made up of disposed gloves. And these gloves are traditionally destined to become landfill.

Figure 4a. Uncontaminated used glove collection.
Figure 4b. Gray-space recycling collection of Styrofoam, ice packs, and plastic film.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Motivated to reduce the environmental impact of lab spaces, I implemented a glove collection and recycling program to reduce the high levels of waste coming of laboratories (Figure 3a). As a research scientist, when I am in the laboratory, I often see opportunities for what I am calling “gray-space” recycling (Figure 3b). Gray-space recycling is where opportunity exists for collecting a new or unutilized waste stream to be repurposed as a new material. In partnership with programs like Terracycle’s Zero Waste BoxTM and Kimberly-Clark’s RightCycle glove recycling collection program, gloves can be collected and sent to a facility that melts down the nitrile and turns it into new materials like mixed-material lumber for park benches (Figure4). Universities and private companies are lining up to partake in gray-space recycling programs. (Unfortunately, due to the chemical and physical properties of nitrile, a used glove cannot be melted down and turned back into another glove.)

Figure 4. Upcycling used nitrile gloves.

Despite the high levels of waste coming from laboratories, science and technology have and are improving the well-being of humanity through discoveries such as finding solutions for disease or the next renewable technology. There is critical need to develop sustainable and renewable products to overcome dependence on petroleum and reduce greenhouse gas generation amid world-wide rising energy demands and increasing population. Upcycling material preserves fossil fuel resources by giving end-products a second life (Figure 4).

How does a scientist balance trying to discover solutions while going about her work in a resource-intensive environment? And maybe the scientist is even trying to find solutions in sustainable technologies? There is a disconnect, as a worker might think that items in the workplace can’t be recycled because a particular item doesn’t fall on the list or fit into a defined waste stream. I argue that the scientist in the lab should be a steward, should question the system, and should make the lab space a better environment.  Green Lab programsoffers just that, by assessing the environmental impact of energy, water, materials (consumables), and hazardous chemical use, and offers actions on how to reduce impact with energy and water saving techniques, green chemistry alternatives, and recycling initiatives. Institutions like UC Davisare leading the way, with a goal of Zero Waste by 2020 and cities like Fort Collinswith a goal of Zero Waste by 2030.

Figure 5. During the six-month pilot program, MIT researchers collected more than 400 pounds of uncontaminated lab gloves from about 30 researchers in 10 labs. The pallet of gloves weights about 800 pounds!

Waste by definition means there is inefficiency in a process. Recycling materials reduces emissions from landfills or incineration. You may be asking, if heat in the form of energy is captured from incineration of waste, isn’t this better? The jury is still out on this one. A life cycle analysis study at MITis evaluating the benefits of recycling lab gloves versus incinerating for waste-to-energy (Figure 5).  Stay tuned!

In celebration of Earth Day, what better time than now is it appropriate to reflect on our waste practices and look for opportunities for improvement? Back to the 70’s adage – reduce, reuse, THEN recycle. As responsible citizens and scientists, we can cut back on our consumables, use re-usable containers as much as possible, and look for those gray-space recycling opportunities. Terracycle is adding free recycling programs every day! In another example, the non-profit Ocean Recovery Alliance is turning ocean plastic waste into liquid fuel. Think outside the box, and into the gray-space, unexplored items that have potential to be repurposed.

“To eliminate the concept of waste means to design things – products, packaging, and systems – from the very beginning on the understanding that waste does not exist.”

~ William McDonough, Cradle-to-Cradle

 

Lisa A. Anderson is a chemist and metabolic engineer who characterizes and engineers microbes like yeast to make renewable products. She grew up in Northern Michigan and received her Ph.D. in Chemistry and Biotechnology from the University of California, Davis. Her personal webpage is www.laanderson.com.