An epicenter of groundbreaking research, the University of Wisconsin constantly produces new findings in many areas, from chemistry to plant pathology. But while these labs vary in research topics, they are united by the large amount of plastic waste they produce.

According to the UW physical plant website, 5,000 tons of waste and 4,000 tons of recyclable materials are transported off campus every year. While it is unclear what percentage of this waste is produced by campus research labs, studies indicate that  research labs produce large amounts of plastic waste globally.

UW has systems in place to manage disposal of other dangerous or hazardous materials produced by labs. According to the UW environmental health and safety website, there are systems in place for labs to dispose of animals, biological waste, chemical waste and radioactive waste. There are limited resources, however, for more mundane lab waste, such as pipette tips, petri dishes and disposable gloves.

Research Scientist Ming-Yi Chou works for The Koch Lab at UW and studies how to best control turfgrass diseases. He says it’s difficult finding ways to dispose or recycle the plastic waste his lab accumulates.

“There is no clear direction of how to recycle them,” Chou said. “Especially, the information is probably online but not here. Where do we dispose of those? In the end, what we can do is dump them into a dumpster with a broken heart.”

In an effort to raise awareness, the Office of Sustainability has offered a Green Labs certification for the past three years. To earn this certification, Office of Sustainability interns work with a member of a research group to meet sustainability targets specific to each lab. These target range from saving energy to finding more sustainable ways to source certain materials or reduce the waste they produce.

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When Chou was growing up in Taiwan, sustainability played a big role in his education. When he arrived in the U.S., using disposable plastics in his lab was easy and convenient for a while, but it eventually started to wear on him. In 2020, he worked with the Office of Sustainability to become Green Lab certified.

“We reuse anything we can,” Chou said. “A lot of times, things are labeled as disposable, but if you look into the material, they can be re-autoclaved. We’ll keep those and clean them and reuse them.”

Chou said there is a lack of resources available for managing the plastic waste his lab accumulates. When he wants to recycle the plastic bags accumulated in the lab, a lab member must arrange transportation to a grocery store to recycle them.

Despite UW’s systems for managing chemicals and hazardous materials, labs are often on their own when dealing with plastic waste, Chou said. Recently, when Chou cleaned out the lab, two large buckets full of plastic waste ended up in the garbage.

This trend of excessive waste is prevalent beyond UW, too. In 2015, a microbiology lab at the University of Exeter weighed all their bioscience department’s annual plastic waste and used that data to estimate the amount of plastic waste used in laboratories across the world. Their calculations showed that research labs produce 5.5 million tons of plastic waste a year.

Labs can work to be more sustainable in multiple ways, including energy, water use, purchasing and plastic use, Office of Sustainability Intern Program Director Tim Lindstrom said.

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There are a few barriers preventing big change to the amount of plastic waste research labs accumulate. While researchers may be aware of the plastic they consume, they often are simply stretched too thin to manage sweeping changes in their lab, according to Lindstrom.

Additionally, changes to improve a lab’s sustainability don’t necessarily directly benefit the research group, making it difficult to prioritize sustainability, Campus Resource Manager Travis Blomberg said.

“While you have a lot of people that care about [sustainability] and want to do the right thing, they also want to know ‘what’s in it for me?’” Blomberg said.

For example, labs use a lot of energy. But if a lab doesn’t need to pay directly for the energy, there isn’t a lot of incentive to improve their energy use. They see these steps to become more sustainable as extra work, Blomberg said.

According to Lindstrom, labs are also constrained by the type of research they perform. Researchers often require specific materials and these conditions leave very little room to maneuver within those requirements.

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Additionally, labs could be motivated to find a more sustainable vendor, but there may not be one that meets their needs and has a university contract. Researchers could also want to recycle their disposable lab gloves, but there is no universal solution for that problem, Lindstrom said.

There needs to be a systems approach to the plastic waste problem in labs, Blomberg said.

Recently, up-and-coming organizations have been trying to find different ways to solve the problem of lab plastic waste. The company Polycarbin aims to use old pipette tip boxes and recycle them into new plastic lab products. The company Kimberly Clark will recycle uncontaminated lab gloves, but researchers need to buy gloves from their company.

While a step in the right direction, these solutions put a big workload on researchers and require reconsideration at a higher level, according to Lindstrom.

“Regardless, whether it’s lab employees or whether it’s students on the UW-Madison campus, or anyone, for waste management and sustainable waste management, the onus and responsibility is so often placed on the consumer and that is an unfair system,” Lindstrom said.