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Recycling Lab Plastics: Success Stories

Start-ups and local programs are overcoming the barriers currently limiting large-scale recycling of plastic waste generated by labs

by
Lauren Everett

Lauren Everett is the managing editor for Lab Manager. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from SUNY New Paltz and has more than a decade of experience in news...

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Laboratories generate 12 billion pounds of plastic waste each year. Many scientists and lab leaders are aware of this shocking statistic yet feel lost in how to take positive steps to reduce their organization’s impact. 

While working toward her PhD in Sustainable & Circular Technologies at the University of Bath, Helen Liang had a similar experience. “During my research career, I was shocked by the amount of single-use plastic consumables (e.g., tubes, petri dishes, well-plates, and pipette tips) that I had to go through per day,” she explained to Lab Manager. “Researchers around me have been constantly talking about how bad they felt about the plastic waste generated in their work life. Ironically, a lot of their research topics are around sustainability!”

A main challenge in being able to recycle plastic waste from labs revolves around the potential hazards and associated safety concerns with handling these contaminated materials. The unfortunate result is they are disposed of and sent to landfills or incinerated. “But what if they are decontaminated? What if they are no longer hazardous? What if they are even safer than stinky and moldy household waste?” asked Liang. These questions led Liang and peers to focus on developing a scalable solution to decontaminate lab plastics to help solve the significant, widespread issues around single-use plastics in labs. 

LabCycle was officially born in 2021 and in Q3 of the same year, the company started its first successful pilot with the University of Bath’s biology and biochemistry labs. The university provided Liang with a small greenhouse to carry out the pilot and test her business concept. Now LabCycle is known as the UK’s first facility to create a circular economy for single-use plastic waste from BSL 1 and 2 labs. “Tests showed that our process creates 90 percent less CO2 emissions compared with sending the waste to a landfill,” said Liang in a university announcement.

A list of lab materials that can be recycled.
Figure 1: A list of lab materials that can be recycled.
Credit: Lab Manager / My Green Lab

How does LabCycle’s recycling system work?

As Liang explained to Lab Manager, plastic waste is collected from labs and decontaminated by Lab Cycle’s proprietary Automated Decontamination System. Using a combination of mechanical and chemical decontamination, the system consumes little energy and has a high material recovery rate. The plastic is then turned into high-grade recycled pellets that are used to manufacture lab-grade consumables.

During my research career, I was shocked by the amount of single-use plastic consumables that I had to go through per day.

In 2023, more than 1,500 pounds of lab plastics from six labs were diverted from landfills and incineration. According to Liang, the LabCycle team aims to further scale up its production in 2024 and launch its first product with high recycled content. “Their recycling process of lab waste plastics holds the promise to resolve many global challenges, such as zero waste, circular economy, and net zero emissions,” says Jhuma Sadhukhan, professor of environmental, energy and chemical engineering at the University of Surrey and director of research and innovation at the School of Sustainability, Civil and Environmental Engineering. “LabCycle’s process can solve this significant global challenge by keeping carbon within the value chains.”

Liang’s career to date is already an impressive one. She completed her PhD as a Marie Curie FIRE Fellow at the University of Bath while co-founding LabCycle. She is now CTO of the company, taking lead on several R&D projects and pilots with organizations from the public and private sectors. She has been recognized as the University of Bath Alumni Innovation Award winner in 2020, and a Royal Academy of Engineering Enterprise Fellow.

Recycling lab plastics is within reach

While LabCycle is making an impact in the UK, other organizations and institutions around the globe share the vision for recyclable lab plastics.

At MIT’s Environmental, Health, and Safety (EHS) Office, the Lab Plastics Recycling Program regularly collects clean lab plastics from 212 MIT labs and works with the Massachusetts start-up GreenLabs Recycling to recycle the materials. In 2020, its first year, the EHS team collected 170 pounds of plastic per week from participating labs. In 2022, this number grew to 280 pounds of plastic per week.

Petri dishes made from Lab Cycle’s recycled lab plastics.
Petri dishes made from Lab Cycle’s recycled lab plastics.
Credit: Helen Liang/LabCycle

After pickup and removal, the plastics are shredded and sold as free stock for injection mold product manufacturing, according to a press release from MIT. Like Liang, MIT’s EHS coordinator for biology, John Fucillo, and others, were facing challenges from waste vendors regarding plastic lab waste and effective decontamination strategies to meet the requirements of waste vendors.

In an effort to explore potential solutions, MIT’s EHS technicians conducted an audit in 2019 and determined that 80 percent of the clean plastic waste generated by MIT labs was empty pipette tip boxes and conical tube racks. The EHS team then provided MIT labs with collection boxes and plastic liners to enable the labs to recycle their clean, uncontaminated pipette tip boxes and conical tube racks. They have also developed an online waste collection request tool for labs to submit pickup requests of their plastic waste. Through these efforts, EHS technicians now have a weekly pickup schedule to collect nearly 300 plastic collection containers across MIT’s campus. 

Tests showed that our process creates 10 times fewer CO2 emissions compared with sending the waste to a landfill.

While only empty pipette tip boxes and conical tube racks are currently collected, MIT’s EHS group is exploring which lab plastics could be manufactured into products for use in the labs and repeatedly recycled. For specifically, they are considering whether recycled plastic could be used to produce secondary containers for collecting hazardous waste and benchtop transfer containers used for collecting medical waste. 

Options for recycling your lab’s plastic waste

Regulations for recycling lab plastics will vary based on location and organization, and as My Green Lab notes, “most lab materials cannot be mixed with other recyclables such as food containers and paper.” 

As a first step to develop a plan for recycling your lab’s plastic waste, it is crucial to consult with your local waste vendor, institutional safety officers, facilities management, and building management before implementing a recycling program for your lab. In Figure 1, My Green Lab shares a list of materials that are commonly able to be recycled in lab environments.

Once you have a clear understanding of what materials can be recycled, you can collaborate with both internal and external partners who share the same commitment to sustainability to craft an effective game plan.

With careful planning and input from specialized vendors, every scientific organization has the opportunity to do their part in reducing the amount of waste their labs generate.