How scientists are recycling tonnes of plastic from labs

University of York researchers have created a new system for recycling single-use plastics used in some scientific experiments.

They say the technique will prevent one tonne of plastic, per laboratory, ending up in landfill sites each year as most recycling plants won’t accept laboratory plastics due to their perceived health and safety risk.

Currently, contaminated plastic is heated to kill-off remnants of human cells, bagged and sent to landfill. Other plastics, such as test tubes, that may only have held water, also have to be sent to landfill in special bags.

Firstly, the team reviewed the types of plastics they were using and where they were coming from.  In order to recycle, labs have to using recyclable material in the first place, but many labs use multiple plastic suppliers with products made from mixed materials.

David Kuntin, a PhD student from the University of York’s Department of Biology, said: ‘We reduced the number of suppliers we used, which in turn reduced the need for multiple deliveries, and created a colour-coded check-list of the types of plastics we had in the lab.

‘We also looked at the size of the plastic containers we were using and asked ourselves whether the larger containers were necessary for all of our experiments.

‘Once we knew what we had in the lab and how much was needed, we looked at implementing an in-house “decontamination station”.’

The station is an area of the lab where plastics are soaked in a high-level disinfectant and left for 24 hours, before being rinsed in water and placed in colour-coded recycle bins ready for collection.

The process reduces the need for high-energy losses in heating the plastics in an autoclave – a pressurised heated container.

Once the plastic has been through this process it is then ready for recycling.

David Kuntin said: ‘Landfill has to be a thing of the past if we are going to improve our global environment so it is essential that we do what we can as scientists to ensure we are moving in the right direction.

‘We are really pleased with the way staff and students have embraced this new addition to laboratory procedure. Much in the same way as people got used to recycling at home, the process in the lab is just as quick and easy.’

The team is now working to raise awareness of their in-house recycling methods to encourage more laboratories around the world to think about their plastic waste disposal.


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