Waste

Labs consume a large amount of resources and produce a large amount of waste. In particular plastic waste is often a common occurrence of research. In Ireland the average person consumes approximately 59kgs of plastic per year, while the average bench scientist consumes approximately 1,000kg. Since the COVID pandemic single-use plastics have become even more common in labs, however one of the most impactful things your lab can do to reduce its environmental footprint is to reduce your reliance on single-use plastic and correctly segregate dispose of all your waste.

The most important thing to remember when recycling correctly is for all plastics to be CLEAN, DRY and LOOSE. Important to separate all plastic items i.e., remove soft plastic coverings from hard plastic containers etc.

Reduce

- Reducing your purchases is the most effective way to eliminate waste from your lab. Ask before purchasing, is it really needed? Do other labs have an excess of this that I could use instead? – This can be discovered if both labs are using the same inventory management tool. Reducing your purchases can also be done by swapping out purchases for example holding on to your pipette tip boxes and only purchasing refill pipette tips. Many suppliers now provide this option, to buy only the refills.

Reuse

- Reusing materials you already have is the next best thing to reducing your purchases. Opting for glassware instead of plastic is one way to do this, see below for further explanation. Reusing an item multiple times an hour/day/week before discarding or cleaning an item to reuse it. Another commonly thrown away item in labs that has increased since the pandemic is plastic gloves. These cannot be recycled so should only be worn when necessary and carefully reused (if possible, safety is the most important consideration).

Swapping out Plastics

-Switch out single-use plastics in your lab for glass alternatives. Historically glassware was always used in scientific research and plastic items are a relatively new phenomenon. Not all experiments can have glass substituted for plastic given the fear of contamination or carryover of residues. However, it would be advised to test this first, before assuming as many experiments could be made more sustainable by this simple switch. See here for demonstration of how carryover does not have an impact on the results of testing for shellfish toxins: Reducing environmental impacts of marine biotoxin monitoring: A laboratory report | PLOS Sustainability and Transformation. Initially of course there will be some resistance in labs, plastic is easier to use and requires less work (i.e., you do not have to wash and dry it before/after use), however this is one of the most impactful things that can be done in a lab, so it is strongly encouraged.

Another benefit of using glass instead of single use plastics, is that it can be cheaper as you do not have to constantly repurchase items. It can also help to save time, especially with all the delays in materials due to COVID.

Instead of using plastic container for sample storage, try using compostable alternatives. These are often cheaper and more sustainable as the likelihood of reusing plastic sample storage containers is small due to potential contamination and cardboard boxes cannot always be recycled if it has been frozen. Compostable options work well and have been found to be cheaper in the past.

Selective Purchasing

- Buying from companies who offer a “take back programme” is great way to manage your waste. However, as Ireland is a relatively small market compared to UK or US, this is not always an option. But we encourage lab users to make this request to your suppliers anyway, in the hopes of influencing them to start offering a take back programme. We have power in numbers so encourage all other lab users that you know to do the same thing with suppliers, if every lab in UCC requested this from suppliers they would be encouraged to make this change and begin to offer a service such as take backs/buy backs. Reaching out to suppliers to take back polystyrene boxes or ice packs is another thing to reduce the amount of waste in your lab.

Recycling

- Increasing the amount of plastic that can be recycled should be seen as one of the last options to reduce waste in labs. Although recycling is better than plastic going to landfill it is not always the silver bullet option it is sold as. All hard plastics in the lab can be recycled if they have been cleaned thoroughly, separated and dried well. For chemical plastic containers these should be rinsed and have all hazard stickers removed or crossed out (labs could also print out “thoroughly rinsed stickers” to place over the labels). All plastic that is going to be recycled from labs should be rinsed well (to be sure they are uncontaminated) and vented before being placed in the bin. Some plastic containers could be reused for waste i.e., silica tubs could be refilled with silica waste and then taken for disposal.

Large plastic items are more likely to be recycled. To enhance the chances of smaller plastics being recycled it has been suggested by our waste company, to keep these items together and separate from general recycling waste. For example, if your lab goes through a large amount of needle caps, syringe plungers or falcon tube lids, collect these items together in a separate bin and then send them for recycling.

- Instead of using plastic container for sample storage, try using compostable alternatives. These are often cheaper and more sustainable as the likelihood of reusing plastic sample storage containers is small due to potential contamination and cardboard boxes cannot always be recycled if it has been frozen. Compostable options work well and have been found to be cheaper in the past.

- Another commonly thrown away item in labs that has increased since the pandemic is plastic gloves. These cannot be recycled so should only be worn when necessary and carefully reused (if possible, safety is the most important consideration).

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