Debbie Knight

Recycling plastics in the laboratory setting

In observation on April 1, 2011 at 2:45 pm

It’s amazing how much plastic waste is generated in a biological research lab. First you have the disposable plastic pipets and pipet tips which allow for the accurate measurement of liquid reagents. Then you have the weighing dishes used to weigh out specific amounts of chemicals. And then there are the tissue culture flasks and dishes, petri dishes, centrifuge tubes, microcentrifuge tubes, reagent bottles, disposable cuvettes, syringes, etc. All of which are predominately single use items.

And most of these items come in some sort of plastic wrapping or containers in order to maintain sterility or purity.

So, the plastic waste can really add up.

It seems that most laboratories don’t even think to recycle some of the things they add to the waste stream. I know this because I see what they put in their trash cans and it makes me sad. Plastics as well as cardboard and paper can always be found in many trash cans dotting the hallways.

In my lab, I routinely collect the recyclable plastics that I can safely collect and place them in the recycle bin. I also reuse some of the plastics (like bottles) when I can.

In addition to recycling, there is more that can be done. Replacing disposable items with more enduring, reusable items can make a difference. My former boss, a young and enthusiastic researcher, made the conscious decision to use reusable glass pipets instead of disposable plastic pipets in the lab. Not only did it save some money in lab supplies, but it also reduced plastics in the general waste stream.

I won’t kid you, the glass pipets took some effort to reuse. They had to be decontaminated, washed, rinsed, dried, sorted, and loaded into metal canisters before they were sterilized and ready for another round of use.

I thought this was a great idea when I joined the lab. And I still do, even though I no longer work in this lab. But it’s not a perfect system. Some lab members would use the disposable plastic pipets whenever they were available – they were convenient.

The university recently started a recycling program to recycle pipet tip boxes which are made of plastic not routinely recycled by local recycling companies. I’m not sure how many labs are aware of this program because I would say tip boxes are the No. 1 item I see in trash bins.

Though sometimes I feel I’m on a one-person crusade, I do the best I can to recycle whatever and whenever I can.

Even when I walk down the hallway, if I notice recyclable items in a trash can, I often will place them in a nearby recycle bin. (I’ll note here that I’m not entirely convinced that the maintenance staff actually places those recyclables in the big recycling bin located on the loading dock – I suspect much of what is in the smaller recycling bins ends up in the general waste stream.)

Perhaps one day, the trash collecting companies will be able to sort recyclables from the regular waste stream, making separating trash and recyclables obsolete. Until then, I do what I can to help the environment – one recyclable item at a time.


  1. You’re not a lone crusader. I help labs around Chicago recycle pipet tip boxes. Unfortunately a lot of the plastics are contaminated and recycling centers won’t take them.

    Someday someone or a company will find an efficient solution for this. Perhaps reusable pipet tips, serologicals, or tubes. It sounds far fetched, but it has to be possible.

    Keep up the cool posts!

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