Waste Project

Why waste is a problem

Labs generate a lot of waste. A lot! Especially labs where work needs to be sterile and clean. The industry transitioned to a reality where it is easier to discard an item rather than to clean and reuse it. These so-called “disposables” form a major part of the waste coming from research labs and account for a large part of the carbon footprint. You may recognise the great volumes of paper tissues, (nitrile) gloves, packaging materials and plastics that are consumed on a daily basis. Especially plastics form a major part, as it is estimated that a staggering 5.5 billion kg of plastics is consumed yearly (LifeLines March 2021 by James Connelly, MyGreenLab), which is the equivalent of 16.5 times the weight of the Empire State Building. What makes matters worse is that most of this waste is incinerated or dumped on a landfill (depending on where you live), and thus the materials are lost as heat and CO2 (and other unfavourable emissions). It is therefore of great importance to reduce the impact of waste in our research labs as much as possible, either by recycling more (and preventing incineration), or better still, by consuming less. At GreenLabs NL, we are actively working on both challenges.

Short term goals

Most of our lab waste is currently incinerated for heat recovery. Partly, this is because lab waste is difficult to recycle. Either it is contaminated with a hazardous substance, or is it composed of a combination of materials. But not all. Many lab disposables come in plastic and cardboard packaging that can easily be used for recycling. A number of lab products, such as plastic bottles, can also be safely recycled. Sorting waste can be a complicated matter, especially in the labs, where different rules apply than at home. With this project, we aim to provide simple guidelines on what can be recycled, and in which bin it belongs. We will provide tips and tricks to optimise waste collection and give insight into what is necessary to make sure your waste handler accepts and recycles your waste.

Long term goals

Laboratories will not easily run out of waste. Even if the waste stream is optimised for maximum recycling, we’d still be making a negative impact on the environment. This is in part due to the imperfect process of recycling: materials can only be recycled a limited number of times, and often recycling occurs towards a lower grade product (pipet tips become waste bags). According to the R-ladder of circularity, we can reduce our impact the most by consuming less (Refuse & Reduce). However, simply reducing your usage is not as easy as it sounds. Optimising protocols and planning ahead of your experiments can help you to minimise disposable use, by considering your needs beforehand, and by preventing an unnecessary repeat of a (failed) experiment. Besides that, the world of lab disposables is hard get rid of. In some labs, like cell culture labs, disposables have no viable alternative, and so usage of plastics is unavoidable. To make a dent in this problem, the long term goal of this project is to initiate a discussion with the stakeholders of the lab disposable value chain, especially the producers, to work towards a circular business model instead of the current linear disposable one. A circular model shifts the profit model for the producer from a “the more we sell, the better” to a “the less the customer uses, the better”, thus driving innovation towards reuse and better recycling.