Northeastern Lab Plastics Recycling Program

Concerned by a large amount of plastic discarded daily within their labs, a group of staff members began searching for ways to recycle some of the materials and reduce their overall waste impact. This led to the formation of the Lab Plastics Recycling program in early 2022, which has helped to recycle 2,592 pounds (1.3 tons) of animal cages, pipette tip boxes, and other lab plastics in just eight months! 

The program functions in collaboration with GreenLabs Recycling, a recycling service based out of Concord, Massachusetts. GreenLabs collects and recycles plastic items from lab science industries that are not accepted within large-scale recycling sorting facilities, with a focus on keeping the recycling process local and cost-effective.  

There are four buildings currently involved in the Lab Plastic Recycling program on campus: ISEC, Egan Research Center, the Mugar Life Sciences Building, and 140 The Fenway. Every other week, GreenLabs Recycling picks up the lab plastics collected at these locations and brings them to their Concord warehouse, where they are sorted and shredded.   

“We’re feeding the recycled resin supply,” says Serena Monteiro, Business Operations and Recycling Coordinator for GreenLabs Recycling. “The recycled resin gets distributed to whatever channels need it. There are a wide variety of applications.” GreenLabs Recycling works with many large-scale manufacturers in the Greater Boston area. The recycled resin material has been used for products including decking, outdoor furniture, and even new recycling bins. “Really, just any product that wants to use any percent recycled resin, it could get turned into,” Monteiro explains.  

Only certain types of plastic can be collected by GreenLabs Recycling for this process: polyethylene terephthalate (PETE) plastics and polypropylene (PP) plastics. Similar to regular municipal recycling facilities, GreenLabs Recycling also does not collect any plastic materials that have been in contact with biohazardous materials. However, there are plastic materials used within lab facilities at Northeastern that can safely be recycled, despite traditional recycling facilities not accepting them. These include media bottles, empty mouse cages, and pipette tip boxes. 

Sue Higgins, Associate Director of Materials and Recycling at Northeastern University, highlights the gap between biohazardous materials and traditionally recyclable materials, where lab plastics such as media bottles, mouse cages, and pipette tip boxes, would often fall. Pipette tip boxes, for example, “were being thrown away again and again because of their shape and nature, and the fact that it looks like it comes out of a lab,” says Higgins. “The recycling facility that handles regular municipal recycling would worry about whether or not it’s contaminated, and they won’t take it. That’s why GreenLabs Recycling takes all these additional special lab plastics.” GreenLabs Recycling helps to fill the gap between biohazardous lab materials and traditionally recyclable materials.  

Emma Gubler, Lab Operations and Safety Manager for the College of Science, also helps to coordinate the Lab Plastics Recycling program and ensure participating labs are using their recycling resources properly. When the initiative was first taking shape, Gubler reached out to the different research groups across the four participating buildings and asked for volunteers to pilot the program. A meeting was held for the interested respondents. “I walked them through everything to make sure there was no misunderstanding about how the program would function and clarified any questions they might have, ensuring the program was going to be carried out in the most effective and best way possible,” says Gubler. Gubler also routinely checks in with the teams to ensure the program is running smoothly and staying up to date with pickup days.  

Higgins is also working to further expand the program in the future. “We’re hoping this fall to be able to expand it to basically any lab on campus that wants to do it.” Gubler shares a similar sentiment. “I would like to see one of these plastics recycling bins in every lab that generates single-use plastics that are of the acceptable variety. Because it’s just so low maintenance, it’s not that much of a commitment. If you have a square foot of space in your lab [for the bin], and you use any single-use plastics, it’s just so easy. It’s better than those plastics going into a trash can.” Participating research teams will receive a specialized recycling bin within their lab, along with information about how to use them properly.  

Gubler also emphasizes the key role of participating labs in helping to grow the program. “I give credit to just the excitement and the pride that other groups have in this program for helping spread the awareness.” 

Gubler describes the responses of the research teams toward the new recycling program as one of “emphatic excitement.” “[The Lab Plastics Recycling program] is reducing a lot of waste, and the groups see that. They’re excited to participate in something like this and contribute to a more sustainable future at Northeastern.”

Written by Daria Healey, October 10th,2022

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