Green Your Lab



Eline Doornenbal  from TU Delft asks:
"I feel bad about using so much single-use plastics such as pipette tips in the lab. How can we be more sustainable?"

Hi Eline. We encourage looking at waste using the well-known mantra: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.   

The first steps should always be to look into reducing and reusing. This would be thinking about how you run your experiments. Is there a way to optimize so that you use fewer pipette tips? 

Good planning can mean you prepare your samples together and only use one pipette tip for each chemical, or if you have variable amounts, to pipette twice with a smaller tip, rather than switching to a bigger pipette tip for that one single sample. Can you reduce the size of your experiments, so that you can use smaller pipette tips? For the appropriate experiment/chemical, you can also label the used pipette tip and reuse it multiple times throughout the day.  

Choosing tips made from recycled plastics or switching to glass may also be options. And there are pipette tip washers on the market for those who want to go the extra mile.  

Plastic pipette tips can absolutely be recycled, but not each waste hauler has the facilities or the confidence to do so. You need to go and discuss with your particular waste hauler and your HS&E department. Different suppliers make their tips out of different plastics, so maybe by changing pipette tip brands, you can find something your waste hauler can recycle. The trickiest part tends to be convincing your waste hauler that your tips are not contaminated and have not interacted with any chemicals that will degrade the plastic. 

Although it is currently in its infancy, we have examples of successful pipette tip recycling. Usually, it means separating your tips into hazardous/non-hazardous, decontaminating them and then depositing them in a puncture proof recycling container. However, do not do this without the written approval from your waste hauler. If your waste hauler has not approved and they see pipette tips in the recycling bag, they will just throw away/incinerate the entire lot because they aren't sure. It takes a bit of leg work to get a tip recycling program started, but it is completely possible. 

Then of course, we also suggest some peripheral ways to save. Beyond the actual tips themselves, reduce the amount of waste associated with pipette tips by reloading your own tips - either from a bag of tips, or an autoreload system. Pipette tip boxes are great for storing small things in the lab and there are many good pipette tip box recycling schemes (and for this you don't necessarily need to go through your waste hauler). Then there are lots more tertiary reductions, such as combining orders with other labs to reduce the amount of packing waste and delivery carbon footprint.


"How to Reduce Experiments?"

We approach every project with a scarcity mind-set. It is important to plan before acting.
1. Look through published literature - for methods, advancements, identical experiments
2. Look through your old data carefully - Is this new experiment really needed to fill a knowledge gap?
3. Can the data be predicted via modeling?
4. Decrease the number of experiments or repeats - What is the minimum number of experiments?
5. Downsize your experiment - What is the minimum size/volume for the experiment?
- Can you use a 0.5mL eppendorf tube instead of 1.5mL
- Can you use a 96 well plate instead of many cuvettes?
6. (if applicable) Add the data to a modeling database and share with colleagues/public for future use


Kacey Ronaldson-Bouchard from Columbia University Department of BME asks:
"We recently found out that our university may not even recycle our recycling. Tips? "

Hi Kacey, This is a really common problem. It's not just your university! You would be surprised at how much "pretend recycling" there is around.   

The key is to have a very frank meeting with your building services manager and your waste hauler and find out what they need to get recycling... actually recycled.   This mean actual print in the contracts that states your waste hauler will fully (or at least partially) recycle what they collect and that they don't just incinerate, send to developing countries or just send to landfill (yes, this happens).   

Another problem we commonly see is that waste haulers use contamination to pass the buck onto you. They need to accept a certain percentage of contamination. One rogue item should not invalidate the entire bag. Then, it’s up to you to put in programs to get students /staff to think before they put things into recycling bins. We all like the feeling of doing good as we pop a bottle into the recycling... So we put things in even if we're not sure. Plus, every waste hauler has a different definition of “recyclable” - many things that say “recyclable” are actually considered contaminants by your waste hauler. Since, recycling sorting is extremely primitive, we need help by pre-sorting things. You should find out what items are considered actual recyclables by your waste hauler and make posters and start education campaign to keep contaminants out of your recycling.   

There are also some specific lab recycling schemes - for example gloves, tip boxes, certain plastics, and equipment. Some of these programs are free or you just need to pay the shipping. You can talk to your lab manager about diverting some of your waste there. This can help circumvent working with your waste hauler.   

Setting up a lab recycling program is a long process. Start small, but don’t give up. We just "completed" a lab waste overhaul at an industrial R&D facility. It was a really tough negotiation between us, building management, EH&S, lab employees and the waste hauler. As Green Lab Enthusiasts, we weren't able to do everything we wanted, but we got the first phase going. We set up a trial of a lab waste recycling scheme for one type of plastic bottle in one pilot lab. It has been an uphill battle and more effort will need to be put in. We will be putting in place training and reminder campaigns for users. We will continually be tracking the program’s success and issues and making customized adjustments. Once a proven model, we will then look to expand to more recyclable items and more labs in that facility.   

Make no mistake that it is a lot of work starting such a program, but once you’ve pioneered this with your waste hauler/lab/University, then others can follow in the trail that you've blazed.   

Green Your Lab asks  Saskia Höcker from  Erhardt Lab at  Heidelberg University:
"How can we be sustainable in a Fly Lab?"

1. Freeze our fly waste in the -70 freezer for two days instead of autoclaving it. 

2. Unplug all vials and wash the plugs so they can be reused. 

3. Reuse the plastic plates (from fruit juice agar plates) also by freezing them, discarding the agar and washing the plates with regular soap. Our lab has never bought new ones, always reused the batch we have.

Note: Questions and response may be slightly edited to fit website reading. Original text is kept where possible