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Trash Sort Illuminates UW Lab Waste

June 9, 2014

IMG_20140423_104723_717On April 23, Jill Tepe, Co-Director of the Green Lab Alliance, donned a Tyvek suit to sort through pounds of laboratory trash mounded on tables at University of Washington’s (UW) waterfront recycling facility. The trash sort, funded by the University of Washington’s Green Seed Fund grant program, aimed to shine a light on the disposal practices of the university’s laboratories and uncover opportunities to divert materials from landfills.

Tepe and Jen Krenz, Research Scientist and Project Manager for the grant, coordinated volunteers from the Office of Environmental Stewardship and Sustainability and UW’s Garbology Project to sort the solid waste stream (or landfill stream) of 20 Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences (DEOHS) labs. “Because these were environmental health labs,” Tepe said, “we had many types of lab waste coming from different scientific disciplines, including microbiology, tissue culture, toxicology, and analytical chemistry.”

After sorting the trash by type – including piles for e-waste, hard lab plastic, plastic film, and compostable materials – Tepe was struck by the amount of compostables. The main culprit: paper towels. In a preliminary summary of the results, DEOHS suggests that paper towels made up 29% of the waste’s total weight and 35% of its volume.

UW’s Garbology Project, a student led group that conducts trash sorts on campus, has found similar problems with composting around campus. A 2013 trash sort of various campus trash bins found that over half of sorted garbage was compostable. Such results spurred UW Recycling to increase the number of Solar Kiosks in outdoor public spaces and to expand the number of buildings participating in MiniMax, a waste-collection system that improves the recycling and composting infrastructure within buildings and also encourages staff to take responsibility for their own waste.

Tepe says that similar changes can occur in lab environments. “There are no composting bins available in lab areas,” Tepe said. “And this is low hanging fruit for the university. So providing compost bins in or near lab areas is the logical next step.”

The laboratory trash sort also revealed some of the unique challenges of managing lab waste. For example, nitrile lab gloves accounted for 22% of the waste by weight. “These get incinerated or landfilled,” Tepe said, “because it’s cost-prohibitive for most labs to participate in limited recycling programs that accept them.”IMG_20140423_103120_211

DEOHS’s results also suggest that further plastic recycling opportunities exist for the university. “Plastic film” accounted for 16% of trash by volume, “hard plastics” for 5%, and “other recyclables” for 5%. “A lot of those hard plastics were virgin and uncontaminated materials, like polypropylene boxes, that could be recycled,” Tepe said.

Because the waste for the project was generated over only two weekdays and two weekend days, project results provide a snapshot – not a true reflection – of the department’s typical trash stream. For example, results appeared to under-represent the amount of hard plastics finding their way to landfill. The team found that the bulk of rigid plastics used by laboratories – including pipet tips, centrifuge tubes, and reagent trays, among other lab plastics – are disposed of in broken glass lab boxes, which get landfilled.

Despite the result’s limitations, Tepe says that they reveal a larger problem in science labs both inside and outside of universities. “There needs to be better consensus about what is recyclable,” she said.

Tepe emphasizes the business opportunity available for local vendors who can fulfill the demand to recycle the broad types of lab plastics currently getting thrown away. “If any vendor can systematically handle these materials, there is a huge opportunity,” she said. “They stand to gain tipping fees from fantastic institutions like UW, even if it’s just for a percentage of this waste.”

Tepe warns, though, that laboratories looking for recycling solutions need to fully understand the end-of-life impacts of their lab plastics. “There are reports of haulers taking recycled lab materials to recyclers who end up throwing them away,” she said. “Recyclers express concern over possible chemical or biological contamination from non-hazardous lab materials even though scientists and Environmental Health and Safety officers have cleared these materials for local municipal solid waste.”

Emily Newcomer, Assistant Director of UW Recycling, suggests IMG_20140423_101746_270that labs could improve recycling percentages by using materials that can more easily be recycled than those currently used. “Overall,” Newcomer said, “I think labs would be more ‘green’ if the materials they used were reusable or came packaged in better, more sustainable packaging, i.e. material that could actually be recycled.”

For Tepe, university laboratories can help solve the recyclability problem by pooling their resources to demand better packaging and recycling options. Tepe cites the work of Allen Doyle of UC Davis, who spearheaded a program to use the purchasing power of the University of California system to encourage vendors to take back Styrofoam coolers. As the Sustainability Manager at UC Davis, Doyle is also working to encourage local re-use of Styrofoam collected on campus.

At UW, Tepe and other project members plan to use the results of the trash sort to inform the larger goal of greening DEOHS laboratories. “A study like this helps shine a light on what is and is not getting recycled,” Tepe said. “And this can help sort out best practices going forward.” Ultimately, the school aims to refine its Green Labs Certification program, to develop better guidelines and better adoption of those guidelines. Improving waste management systems serves as a crucial aspect of improving overall lab sustainability.

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-Cyrus Philbrick

Communications Manager

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