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Keeping Plastic Lab Waste Out of Landfills and Incinerators

A bin full of plastic laboratory waste
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Laboratories are vital hubs of scientific innovation. They’re also significant contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, through their reliance on single-use plastic consumables among other things. While these products offer several advantages such as affordability, convenience and sterility the environmental impact of manufacturing, transporting and disposing of them is high. One estimate indicates that biological, medical or agricultural research produces ~5.5 million tons of plastic waste annually comparable to the carbon emissions of > 1 million UK residents.

Until recently, a lack of specialized services meant there was no definitive method for safely and effectively decontaminating plastic waste for reuse in new consumables. As a result, this waste was incinerated or diverted to landfill. A recent study found that switching from incineration to recycling for recyclable plastic products (e.g., polypropylene, polycarbonate and PET) could cut lifetime emissions by 50

The start-up company LabCycle has tackled this issue head-on, with its innovative approach to laboratory waste management. Specifically, its automated decontamination system has marked a significant breakthrough in making lab plastic recycling both feasible and sustainable.

Technology Networks recently had the pleasure of speaking with LabCycle’s co-founder and chief technology officer Dr. Helen Liang, to learn more about its circular economy for laboratory plastic waste.

Laura Lansdowne (LL): What motivated you to create LabCycle, and could you share any specific experiences that led to the development of the innovative approach for recycling plastic lab waste?

Helen Liang (HL): My research background includes microbiology, biotechnology and sustainable chemical technologies. I co-founded LabCycle alongside my PhD. Throughout my research journey, I was astonished by the significant volume of single-use plastic consumables, such as tubes, petri dishes, well-plates and pipette tips, utilized daily. Compounding the issue, none of this waste could be recycled due to health and safety concerns. This realization prompted me, along with many others in the research community, to seek solutions. Identifying the lack of expertise and scalable decontamination and recycling technologies as a bottleneck, we developed an automated decontamination system to address this challenge directly.

Simultaneously, we recognized a substantial demand for single-use plastic recycling and more sustainable products, including those with higher recycled content, within the research and healthcare sectors. Given that recycled plastics from labs are of very high quality, after a series of research and development, we established the feasibility of a circular economy approach for lab plastic (Figure 1).

Figure 1: LabCycle’s circular economy for single-use plastic waste from biosafety level 1 and 2 laboratories. Credit: LabCycle.  


LL: LabCycle aims to recycle up to 80% of lab plastic waste, including items like pipette tips, test tubes and petri dishes. How does the company plan to engage and collaborate with research institutions and laboratories to encourage adoption on a broader scale?

HL: Positively, both public and private sector research institutions and laboratories express strong interest in recycling their laboratory plastic waste. We aim to rapidly expand our operations in the next two to three years to meet growing demand.

LL: How does LabCycle plan to navigate the transition from a successful pilot to a commercial rollout? What challenges and opportunities do you foresee in scaling up the recycling service?

HL: In 2024, our strategy involves expanding our operations and introducing our initial product featuring a significant proportion of recycled content. Anticipated challenges include navigating behavioral shifts and addressing the economics of scale. Nevertheless, we are confident that the resolute commitment of the research and healthcare communities to sustainability will drive both behavioral changes and widespread adoption.

LL: What can we do to encourage broader adoption of sustainable practices within laboratory settings and beyond?

HL: There are many things we can do to encourage broader adoption of sustainable practices – the following are just the top three from my perspective:

  • Raise awareness by sharing success stories and case studies, highlighting laboratories that have effectively reduced waste or adopted energy-efficient measures, with an emphasis on the practical benefits and lessons learned.
  • Develop training and induction programs for researchers and laboratory staff, incorporating real-world examples to illustrate how simple changes in procedures can yield significant environmental benefits.
  • Establish certifications or recognition programs for laboratories meeting sustainability criteria. For example, acknowledge labs that minimize single-use plastics or implement efficient recycling systems. Additionally, advocate for and implement regulations and funding criteria that promote environmentally friendly laboratory practices.

Jinghui (Helen) Liang was speaking to Laura Elizabeth Lansdowne, Managing Editor for Technology Networks.

About the interviewee

Jinghui (Helen) Liang obtained her PhD in sustainable chemical technologies from the University of Bath. She is the co-founder of LabCycle and serves as the company’s chief technology officer.