University team leading the way in recycling lab waste - Lisa McMillan and Jo Brown

Recycling – Is this the correct bin? Hmm… I'm not sure. It's a common problem when we try to do our bit at home, so just imagine what it's like when all your plastic waste is from a lab and contaminated with bacteria and viruses!

Lisa McMillan from the Technical Team in Edinburgh Napier University’s School of Applied Sciences
Lisa McMillan from the Technical Team in Edinburgh Napier University’s School of Applied Sciences

One earlier calculation suggested the world’s biology-focused research institutions alone generate an estimated 5.5 million tonnes of single use plastic waste every year. Fears of contamination mean most lab users do not consider recycling as an option – until now that is.

Three years ago, we decided we had to question the status quo. Science often provides the answers but ironically is a huge part of the plastic ‘pandemic’. There had to be a better way.

Mixed recycling facilities already existed on Edinburgh Napier campuses and so we decided to ask our waste contractor whether they would accept our lab plastics. It’s a tricky issue and we expected the answer to be no. We were delighted when the answer came back that they were happy to accept around 95 per cent of the plastics we use!

First, across our biomedical science and microbiology labs, we agreed a sterilisation process using industrial strength disinfectant. This ensured plastics were made safe before recycling. We also carried out a pilot, checking that our new signs and instructions were clear and user-friendly for everyone working in the lab.

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By summer 2019 we were ready to go. Since then, we have rerouted almost two tonnes of plastic away from general waste and, to coin a phrase, we’ve never looked back.

In 2020 we travelled to a conference at Queen’s University Belfast. We thought technicians from other universities might be interested in the work we had started. As things turned out, we were overwhelmed with the response. “Thanks for taking the time to come to inspire us”, was one of many positive comments we received that day.

It seemed we had tapped into something and weren’t the only ones wanting to make our labs environmentally sustainable. As our journey has evolved, we have shared it with almost 100 different organisations. The virtual world we were forced into by the pandemic ironically helped us reach far greater audiences than would have been possible in person.

The obvious appetite for change constantly inspires us to keep going with what can often be a challenging journey. Sharing our story, practices and procedures is so vital if we are to start making a real dent in that figure of 5.5m tonnes.

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Although we’ve been cited as ‘pathfinders’, these issues are of course so much bigger than one institution. We are always open to considering partnerships with other like-minded lab users. Only together can we overcome the challenges we face which will allow our initiative to be adopted on anything like the scale required.

We have also signed up to University College London’s ‘Laboratory Efficiency Assessment Framework’ tool. This is guiding us in making many other sustainability-linked improvements, including making efficient use of energy, water and chemicals.

Had we known the scale of this we might never have started, but we are so glad we did. Plastic waste volumes here at Edinburgh Napier are relatively small, but having now encouraged many other organisations to consider recycling, who knows how far this journey might take us.

Lisa McMillan and Jo Brown, from the Technical Team in Edinburgh Napier University’s School of Applied Sciences

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