The amount of waste that I have seen generated in a scientific laboratory would make Al Gore cry.
On a daily basis, scientists use and then dispose of plastic tubes, gloves and pipette tips, all destined for the landfill. A pilot study conducted by students at McGill University estimated that labs on their campus generate 100 tons of plastic waste and 275 tons of glass every year—and there are more than 300 research universities in the United States alone.
So why, in an academic hub of environmentally conscientious, problem-solving people, don’t laboratories have waste production down to the absolute minimum? And what can we do about it? Single-use items are popular among researchers because they have already been sterilized and they don’t need to be cleaned after use. Unfortunately, they often can’t just be tossed into the recycling bin, because in many labs, everything used in an experiment ends up covered in things that are toxic or dangerous. Because the majority of molecular biology labs work with E. coli—the bacterium that causes food poisoning—everything that touches the bug must be decontaminated. It all goes into an autoclave, a machine that looks like an oven and heat-kills germs at temperatures hot enough to cook a brisket. Then it’s chucked.
Most of the tubes laboratories throw away should be recyclable, but other items are not. It would be time-consuming to go into each waste bag and separate out recyclable items. Many scientists already work well over the average American 40 hours per week so adding “sift trash” to the daily task list is unlikely.
But there are plenty of things scientists can do to minimize waste. Researchers could use glass vials instead of plastic, which are reusable, since they survive the autoclave heating. Labs could purchase zero waste boxes, which ship certain items to a specialized recycling facility. In 2011, the company Kimberly-Clark started a glove-recycling program that has repurposed 300 tons of single-use gloves into items like patio furniture.
The problem is that participation in these types of initiatives is voluntary and so recycling rates vary between institutions. While there are examples of successful lab recycling programs at places like Harvard and the University of North Carolina, scientists on the whole could be doing more to achieve zero waste. But scientists are people too. Changing an ingrained behavior, even a little bit, takes time.
The odds of recycling are influenced by convenience. For example, more people will recycle if the bin is in the lab rather than down the hall and up two floors. But getting the bins in place relies on someone taking the initiative. To create lasting change that does not hinge on one recycling-passionate person, there must be a change in policy.
Companies have an obvious incentive to appeal to consumers: a desire to stay in business. Kimberly-Clark may be an environmentally conscientious company, but its executives likely created the glove-recycling program because they thought their customers would use it. Incentives work on a government level as well: about a fifth of U.S. states have bottle bills that refund people either five or 10 cents per recyclable beverage container. Not surprisingly, these states have about a 40 percent higher recycling rate than other states in the U.S.
Perhaps incentives could also work on a laboratory level. If the National Institutes of Health, one of the largest sources of research funding in the U.S., used waste minimization as funding criterion, more labs would undoubtedly find ways to recycle. Universities could also offer funds to labs that participate in recycling programs, or to labs that have shown waste reduction. Emory University in Atlanta offers small grants to labs for sustainability-related projects through its Green Labs initiative. However, since the funding can’t be used for nonsustainability-related research (which is the lab’s main focus), funding agencies could award research grants to labs that have made sustainability a priority, much like the National Science Foundation uses community service and commitment to diversity as award criteria.
Penalize recyclables found in the waste stream
Some states and cities ban certain items from the landfill, like food and electronics. Enforcing these restrictions, however, costs money since people need to be hired to audit waste and give out citations.
One solution that some municipalities like New York City have adopted is refusing to remove trash until the recyclables have been removed. In this scenario, there is a large incentive for the resident, or in this case, laboratory. If you don’t want to recycle, no problem, get rid of your own trash. I can imagine behavior would change pretty quickly (although illegal dumping may become a completely different issue). To curb the burden placed on labs (or, more accurately, the lowest member on the lab totem pole), the university could establish recycling committees who educate and equip labs with convenient recycling set-ups.
Scientists may have a unique set of barriers toward achieving zero waste in the laboratory, but they are driven by the same motivations as everyone else: saving time and money.
While there are plenty of examples of stellar recycling programs implemented by various laboratories, programs, or universities, we are far from achieving zero waste. By designing recycling policies we ensure that research laboratories contribute to finding the next big discovery, not to filling up our landfills.