Business Management

Repurposing Lab Equipment and Supplies

Repurposing Lab Equipment and Supplies

Thinking creatively can bring new purpose to everyday items

Gina Hagler

Lab equipment is expensive. Often, it’s designed for a specific purpose. When that purpose is met by other equipment or a newer product with slightly different specs that is brought into the lab, material and equipment that is still "good" becomes redundant or useless before its time. Lab managers can rid the lab of these items by selling them to another lab, bringing cash into the lab for future purchases in the process. They can also recycle the equipment at no or minimal cost to the lab, but with a negative impact on the environment. Repurposing—the use of a piece of equipment for a different purpose—is a third option. It does not bring cash in from a sale, but it can keep cash from flowing out for a purchase. It also obviates the need for the expenditure of energy required to recycle the item in question.

Why repurpose?

As companies and nations work to reduce their environmental footprint, repurposing is on the rise. Unlike disposal or recycling, repurposing neither adds to the amount of material headed for a landfill nor uses new resources in the form of energy, transportation, and labor in the creation of a recycled product. Repurposing extends the life of a product by adding a period of use to the production, use, and disposal cycle of that product. Sometimes, equipment can be repurposed for a use that is similar to the original purpose. These instances are generally obvious. At other times, a bit of creativity is required.

Ten opportunities to repurpose

As long as the equipment or material in your lab that you are looking to repurpose is not adding to your environmental footprint or taking away from your bottom line, there are many ways to repurpose it with a new function. Here are 10 to get you started:

1. Carts and carriers: It's often the case that the equipment that sat on the cart or was transported in the carrier was sold or recycled, leaving the transport portion behind and available for further use. Among other things, a cart or carrier can be used for files, books, or specimens that must be moved from one location to another—once clearly marked for that purpose—during their processing.

2. Shelving and storage units: Stationary shelving can limit the possibilities, yet it can still be repurposed. Rather than holding the equipment needed for the original use, assign those shelves the purpose of holding clean lab equipment, mitts, and eyewear. A storage unit, especially one that rolls, can house the materials required for routine day-to-day operations at different locations within the lab. When not in use, the unit can be tucked out of the way. When in use, it can be right where it is needed.

3. Paper goods: When equipment leaves the lab or takes on a new purpose, logbooks are left behind. Yet, a system for tracking performance or data can easily be modified to a different use. Change the column headings. Break the data on the page into units or groupings that are meaningful to the new process. The logs can be used to capture data before it is entered into a computer, or they can be used for meeting notes and annotations of journal articles or research studies that are of interest to those in the lab.

4. Filter paper and filters: Using filter papers to filter tea may be taking the notion of repurposing a few steps beyond what your lab is willing to do. Then again, everything you can put to a new use before it leaves the lab on its way to be recycled or dumped is a plus for the planet, and it’s already sitting there in the lab. Can the filter papers be used as coasters or for cleanups in the sink area of the coffee room? Is it possible to trim a filter in a frame while maintaining its integrity and use it in a new process?

5. Glassware: Once you get past glassware's obvious suitability as a vessel for liquids ranging from water for plants to sun-brewed iced tea, a number of other possibilities come to mind. Having the glassware cut to heights that meet specific uses as a way to achieve this makes a lot of sense. Glassware with a height of a few inches makes a perfect container for paperclips, push pins, and binder clips, to name a few. Glassware cut to a height a bit shorter than pens or pencils provides a perfect pencil holder. Turning the glassware on its side and gluing it along the length will give you cubbyholes that stand up to use.

PLAY IT SAFE

Once a piece of equipment is designated for repurposing, it is imperative that it be thoroughly cleaned and sterilized. When the items are ready for use, they must be marked in a manner that makes it clear to future users. One excellent method is to mark the equipment with durable, waterproof, colored tape. Make it known that anything with the-color-you-choose tape is ready for—and only for—non-scientific uses, or vice versa.

6. Protective gear: Mitts and aprons—these things are designed to protect people during their work. They can also be used to protect surfaces in day-to-day use. Mitts cut to a circle can be used under hot coffee pots. Mitts can also be cut to size and pulled up around the sides of a coffee pot to insulate the pot. Aprons make good chair covers in the kitchen area or the company commons.

7. Cleaning solutions and tools: A cleanser meant for one piece of equipment may be just as effective when used for another piece of equipment. It may even be suitable for general cleaning tasks around the lab. Be sure to check it out and see before trashing it, or using it. The same goes for tools that were a perfect fit for the nooks and crannies of one piece of equipment. Look around the lab to see if the tools work as well with something else.

8. Washing centers: Washing centers, cleaning stations—whatever you call the designated sink area for cleaning equipment in your lab—it's likely that everything you need to clean equipment, draw filtered water, and get a supply of ice is within inches of each other. Efficiency like that should be maintained. Do the drying racks work with your new equipment? Is the current sink deep enough? Is it time to upgrade to a system that fills vessels by voice command? This is your chance to work with what you have to give it a try.

9. Sterilizing equipment and special-purpose machines: This equipment is generally expensive and manufactured to spec. However, if you have equipment for sterilizing or spinning samples, check to see if these capabilities are on the wish list of someone in your lab. If it's practical to do so, one person's old piece of equipment could just be someone else's new and prized piece of equipment.

10. Workbenches: Chances are, you'll always need spaces for lab personnel to work. When one set of workbenches is about to be replaced with the next new thing, stop for a moment. Is there a way to use these old benches? Often the benches are fixed in place. What other function could take place in that area? Could they be used as desks? Would their use in this way free up space in another part of the lab, making it possible for you to make a change you've wanted to make for quite some time? Could some communal activities take place in that space, freeing up room in the common area for something else—like a foosball table? While you're at it, could you trick a workbench out as a ping pong table?

Repurposing your equipment and materials in the lab is well worth the time in both financial and environmental terms. As a result, your lab makes fewer purchases, and the space, energy, and labor required for recycling your equipment can be put to more productive use. That’s definitely a win-win.