Labs Plastic Recycling Project

Our staff are leading the charge against single-use plastics in labs by coming up with innovative new ways to tackle waste and encourage recycling.

When lab technician Lisa McMillan and technical assistant Jo Brown grew concerned at the volume of single-use lab plastics and the lack of in-lab recycling facilities, they took it upon themselves to pioneer a new recycling initiative that has to date re-routed 1,700kg of plastic from general waste to dry mixed recycling.Recycled chemical drum repurposed as garden planter

Recycling lab plastics has historically been viewed as too challenging due to contamination issues, but Lisa and Jo were determined to find a solution that would allow them to recycle almost all plastic items. They felt strongly that the volume of waste involved and resulting environmental impact warranted an investigation into a more sustainable method.

In late 2018, they began to consult widely both in and out of the lab and worked to develop, standardise and disseminate decontamination and waste handling protocols. Since summer 2019, their efforts have seen an incredible 1,700kg plastic diverted from landfill. They've also recycled steel drums to be used as planters to improve biodiversity at Sighthill campus.

The project was initially rolled out in the biomedical science and microbiology teaching and research areas, as these labs were generating the most single-use plastic waste. Steps taken included:

• Agreeing decontamination protocol and standardising across labs
• Developing in-lab signage and disseminating information and requirements to staff and students
• Addressing necessary changes to waste uplift arrangements and signage for external dumpsters
• Expanding to include non-contaminated ‘standard’ recycling within all School of Applied Sciences labs
• Establishing protocols to allow easy differentiation of standard and contaminated waste to ensure appropriate handling

Lab recycling? Yes, really!

Did you know that labs worldwide use an estimated 5.5 million tonnes of single-use plastic each year? Virtually none of these plastics are recycled, as they're often contaminated with potentially harmful bacteria and other bugs.

In this short video, Lisa and Jo explain how they're rethinking recycling by finding better ways to deal with lab plastics, including setting up decontamination processes so that more single-use plastics can be safely recycled.


Looking forward

Sharing their experiences with others has become a key aspect to Lisa and Jo’s work. In January 2020 they presented at a technicians’ conference at Queens University Belfast, where they received an overwhelming response from other technicians keen to begin sustainability efforts themselves, and with whom they continue share best practice and assist.

Lisa and Jo have also joined an APUC-led Climate Emergency Procurement Working Group, contributing a number of case studies and best practice examples to inform framework agreements and help people with lab purchasing decisions can make ethically-informed choices. They have also signed up to the Laboratory Efficiency Assessment Framework (LEAF) initiative.

In May 2021, Edinburgh Napier joined a pilot project with LEAF, the National Technician Development Centre (NTDC) and Liverpool, Manchester Metropolitan, Newcastle and Reading Universities to work together to improve sustainability in technical areas. An intended outcome of the project is to better understand the skillsets technical staff require to improve the sustainability of their operations, and how they can be better supported.

By taking the initiative and making the changes they wanted to see, Lisa and Jo have made a visible, quantifiable and positive impact almost immediately. As their work continues to expand, with colleagues and students alike, we are excited to see more positive changes take place within the University to reduce our environmental impact.

Get in touch

If you're interested in learning more about the project, please visit the Lab Plastics Recycling Blog or contact l.mcmillan@napier.ac.uk or j.brown5@napier.ac.uk

Recycling with the Sighthill Gardening Club

The labs plastic recycling initiative has also contributed to other sustainable projects across the University, such as the Sighthill Gardening Club.

The club was established in autumn 2019 when 25 steel chemical drums – previously sent to landfill – were upcycled and used as planters for the new garden.

The aim of the Gardening Club is to increase biodiversity around the campus and bring wellbeing benefits for students and staff.