Research institutions need to reflect on their attitudes toward plastic waste and make sustainability a priority in laboratories

Whether it’s encouraging the use of reusable cups, banning plastic straws, or charging customers for plastic bags in grocery stores, it’s clear that some companies and policymakers are beginning to take measures against the growing issue of plastic waste. It's easy to imagine science as an answer to our current sustainability crisis, as it offers the development of new environment-friendly materials, low emission technologies, and the production of discoveries and evidence that can help us fight climate change. But could those working on the solution also be contributing to the problem?

According to an audit at the University of Washington, disposable gloves, made from nitrile or latex, are a laboratory's main contribution to landfill waste, making up around a quarter of the waste sent to the trash by scientists. Gloves contaminated with chemicals are considered hazardous waste, and must be disposed of accordingly to ensure public and environmental safety. Some researchers choose to reuse gloves that are still clean after one use, but this is not always possible — gloves can get sweaty, tear, and are sometimes tricky to put on once they’ve come off. Importantly, gloves are mainly a prevention measure and do not always become contaminated, so they are thrown in the trash rather than the hazardous waste bin, ending up in a landfill. Instead, gloves could be recycled.

In the last five years, the University of Edinburgh's School of Chemistry has diverted one million gloves — 15 metric tons of plastic — from landfill waste. The department was the first in Europe to sign up to the KIMTECH Nitrile Glove Recycling Program, also known as RightCycle, run by Kimberly Clarke Professional, a multinational consumer goods corporation, and TerraCycle, a company that specializes in recycling unconventional items. The scheme is operated not only in the United Kingdom, but also in the United States, with laboratories at the University of California Santa Cruz, University of Illinois, University of Texas Austin, and Purdue University signed up to the program. Between 2011 and 2017, more than 360 metric tons of waste — about 24 million gloves — were diverted from landfill because of the program. The nitrile gloves are turned into plastic granules that, after blending with other recycled plastics or being milled into a powder, form composite raw materials that can later be processed and turned into bins, garden equipment, furniture, or even rubber flooring and ground covering for sports facilities.

Tim Calder, Waste Management Officer for the University of Edinburgh's School of Chemistry, came across the scheme when talking to a Fisher Scientific representative who mentioned the nitrile glove recycling program. Calder bought 200 collection boxes in February 2014 and notified laboratory staff that they could take one to their lab on request. Since then, when the boxes are full, they are taken down to a larger collection point in the school’s stores facilities, which are emptied every six to eight weeks by TerraCycle. “I was involved with sustainability at the University and looking for new opportunities,” says Calder. He believes the initiative has been successful because “the staff and students here have been happy to do their bit.” 

According to a 2015 estimate, around 5.5 million tons of plastic are produced in bioscience research facilities alone every year — so why aren’t recycling programs more popular? The reason why many single-use plastic products, including laboratory gloves, are not conventionally recycled, is that doing so is not usually economically viable. Collecting and processing them through regular streams costs more than the value of the material left at the end. However, this particular recycling scheme works because TerraCycle collects a range of hard-to-replace plastics, from a variety of institutions, which are processed and then combined to make composite materials that can be processed into useful products. Participating laboratories only have to pay for the transport of the gloves to their nearest collection warehouse location.

The School of Chemistry is currently the only department at the University of Edinburgh to take part in the RightCycle program, despite sharing a campus with other science facilities. Even when individuals have the initiative to adopt more sustainable practices in their labs, it is difficult to know where to start, or how to design programs that can be upheld in the long-term and will be embraced by students and staff. Each university or research institution has different protocols for how laboratory waste streams are handled, so a collective effort between building managers, laboratory staff, and department heads is crucial for the success of such initiatives. The implementation of the glove recycling scheme in current universities has often relied on the initiative of staff or students, which is often rare as researchers are often already too busy to spend their time developing sustainable policies for their departments. Institutions should instead fund a position dedicated to supervising the management of waste, someone who can liaise between their institution and recycling companies, as well as looking at how to make sustainability a priority in the department’s policies.

Sustainability initiatives don't have to stop at gloves - there are multiple single-use lab plastics that we should aim to recycle.

In fact, there are other laboratory materials that recycling programs could target: researchers go through plenty of other single-use plastic items daily, such as pipette tips, petri dishes, and vials. Currently, chemical contamination limits the amount of material that can be recycled, but future efforts should focus on finding ways to neutralize equipment contaminated with common solvents to enable their recycling. To reduce plastic waste, facilities could also look at replacing plastic equipment with reusable glassware where possible, or recycling the plastic packaging in which chemicals are purchased.

The question of sustainability in the lab goes beyond plastic waste, with increasing efforts to adopt a "circular economy" approach by recovering used solvents for reuse, sharing leftover chemicals between departments, and creating chemical management systems to ensure an efficient distribution of resources. As these lab practices become more widespread, they will serve to not only minimize waste, but also save funds and materials.

We ask other scientists from our Consortium to respond to articles with commentary from their expert perspective.

Thanks so much for this article, Simone! The issue of sustainability within research has been weighing on my mind a lot of late. The glove recycling initiative is something we really ought to try and get more institutes involved in. I was also thinking about how research campuses can optimise their energy consumption. For instance, the International Centre for Theoretical Sciences (ICTS), Bangalore, uses solar panels to power all their street lamps. They are now working on a plan to use up all their open roof area to set up more panels. These will eventually power all lights, elevators, fans and other minor electrical use during the core working hours of 9am-5pm. Of course, such efforts come easier to a theoretical sciences institute that does not have to deal with heavy equipment and cooling costs, but I do think that this is a course worth following. Most research campuses come with a lot of open spaces and I’m sure one can think of many ways to utilise them in an energy-efficient manner.

Thank you Sruthi. I was surprised by the fact that the glove recycling programs aren’t more popular, given how well they worked at my previous department, so I felt like I had to do some digging to figure out why! You’re totally right that the problem is much bigger than just plastic, and energy efficiency is definitely another big issue to tackle. I think fortunately a lot of universities are adopting long-term zero-carbon or emission reducing targets, so there will be more pressure/incentives to look into something as widespread as energy management through institutional reform.

This is a great article and you raise a lot of good points! When I bring this up to colleagues, usually there’s a lot of pushback regarding sustainability initiatives under the assumptions that we can’t do much. However, in your article you give a few good ways on how to start, when possible, and gave a great example of how a small change (i.e. recycling glove program) can make a huge difference. You also talk about some of the challenges that labs face such as the fact that people are already too busy to think about sustainability initiatives. I really liked your suggestion that institutions should fund a position dedicated to supervising the management of waste. This sounds relatively simple and do-able and could potentially make a huge difference on the amount of waste produced at the campus level. Finally, I really appreciate you writing this very important article as this is a conversation we must have. We have to start thinking on how to move to more sustainable science practices. Thank you! 

Thanks for your kind words Adriana! I agree, I think that the culture of sustainability is usually there, and people are happy to participate when they are able to. The problem seems to be that often there isn’t someone who can just sit down and focus on how to implement all these changes, so having a dedicated person seems like a good option.

This article makes such an important point, Simone - research that has the explicit aim to develop new environmentally friendly processes/materials/etc can be easily undermined by research practices that are wasteful. I tried to implement the Kimtech glove recycling scheme at my lab in Stockholm, and was really disappointed to find that it is not available in Sweden. I think this was because certain countries have different (and sometimes strange) definitions of “recycling” and “waste” and who owns waste materials, making it difficult for corporate partners to become involved. If not for this difficulty, everyone in my lab was very keen to set up the scheme!

Thanks Lauren! Your point about how it isn’t available in Sweden just highlights how we need universities and research facilities to act on these types of initiatives at an institutional level. Hopefully with the resources that they have, it will be possible to overcome some of those barriers, or find other schemes that could work. 

Simone - let me add on my own thanks for writing this article. As a graduate student, I consistently did my best to be as environmental as I could on a personal level, but I had some trouble convincing those around me. Often, the measures I would take would place some difficulty on me (e.g. keeping track of gloves, taking time to rinse or wash used tubes or containers for reuse or recycling, having used seran wrap in a drawer vs. throwing it out and getting fresh each time), which made it difficult for me to convince those around me to follow suit.

When I tried to engage those above me (admins), I frequently got the “Send me some information, I’ll look into it” response, which resulted in them promptly forgetting about it. As you very astutely commented, I was too busy to follow up; it can also be intimidating to follow up with a department chair, for example, as a student. Nobody wants to be a nagger and and risk getting on the bad side of an administrator with some sort of power over you.

Seeing this article has inspired me to contact my university’s environmental services office (why hadn’t I yet thought of that?) to see if I can get them to look into these recycling services you’ve mentioned.

I’m glad the article encouraged you to see if something similar can be done in your department! One of my motivations for writing this article was to collate all this information so people can see what is being done at other institutions, and how. What surprised me when researching for the piece the fact that these programs are not more popular, when once it’s been set up, it’s quite straightforward. Hopefully bringing awareness of these issues will encourage more people on board and make us reflect on what other ways we could be more sustainable in the lab. 

This is such an important topic in science. Especially those of us studying conservation, ecology, and related fields that are centered on sustainability. How could we not think of the waste produced! While autoclaving and sterilizing waste will always be a necessity to ensure we aren’t releasing anything dangerous, toxic, or infectious into the environment, glove recycling post-sterilization is a great way to minimize our waste footprint. I am all for this idea!

You do raise a number of good points, as evidenced by previous peer comments, regarding interest and feasibility of this approach. Like Greta Thunberg is discovering, making people switch from saying they want change to truly implementing change is easier said than done. The more we talk about it and come up with alternatives, the closer we will get to an answer that will serve science and the Earth better than the current model of “use once and trash”.

Thanks Marnie! You’re completely right, hazardous gloves have to be disposed of appropriately to ensure personal and environmental safety. However, he gloves that the RightCycle scheme collects cannot be significantly contaminated (hence why they are sent to landfill otherwise), and the scheme has already recycled more than 24 million gloves in the last decade! Also, hazardous waste can’t be send to landfill without stabilization either, to ensure that material doesn’t affect the surrounding areas, so hopefully similar techniques could be used to ensure that even contaminated gloves can be recycled in future. 

Your article made me think of a particular researcher I recently  interviewed. She is very cetic of recycling campaigns, partly because  the vast majority of plastic isn’t recycled at all, for a variety of  reasons (in Canada, for instance, only 9% of plastics are recycled).

While we always repeat “reduce, reuse, recycle”, people tend to focus  on the last one (separating recyclable garbage), which might clear our  conscience but doesn’t actually solve the problem. I’ve been thinking a  lot about it recently and I know this is such a delicate issue (it even  feels weird to criticize recycling efforts, something that of course people do because they worry about the environment!)

This is such an important topic and I’m definitely bringing it up to the waste management entity at my institution. Thanks for writing the article! I wonder what the implications are for trusting researchers to  place only non contaminated gloves in the recycling bins and if there would be liability issues for the institutions themselves if there was a case where some kind of unwanted chemical was found to be present in the recycling bins?

I loved your opening paragraph re: people thinking scientists are the solution to our wasteful practises yet we are also a big part of the problem.

Coming from a chemist’s perspective, we use a lot more glass than other life science labs which allows us to reuse or recycle the majority of apparatus we run our reactions in. I try to measure stuff out in reusable measuring cylinders over single-use syringes, run reactions in parallel so I’m only using one syringe to add the same reagent X times etc. Green chemistry is a growing field to replace current practice with less harmful reaction conditions etc.

The challenge of contamination and maintaining good controls between experiments is a contention point, so I try and reduce my plastic usage outside of work in an attempt to compensate for my wasteful practice in work. It’s not ideal but I think if society as a whole reduces its trivial use of single-use items, it means we can still use them where absolutely necessary in research.

A new Lancet Countdown report presents the lifelong health consequences that a child born today will face

We're a community of scientists telling stories about all the truth and beauty in the universe. Subscribe to get the most interesting, enlightening, and entertaining science writing sent to you.

We're a community of scientists telling fascinating, true stories about the science that's happening now.

Wet-type Cable Granulating Plant

Wire Recycling, Cable Stripper Machine, Tire Cutting Machine - Suyuan Lanning,http://www.sywasterecycle.com/