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Innovations in lab waste recycling for greener research

Advancements in sustainable materials, efficient recycling systems, and innovative lab practices are being leveraged to establish eco-conscious testing environments and reduce waste in laboratories, thereby mitigating the environmental impact of laboratory research.

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Laboratory environments across industries produce copious waste after cycles of trial and error. They discover the world’s most groundbreaking solutions, yet their climate impact soars. Innovators are designing solutions to make low-waste labs the precedent so research becomes greener. What are the most significant advancements business professionals leverage for eco-conscious lab testing and recycling?

Innovations in Upcycling 

Researchers have generated solutions for lab waste products that currently do not have a viable recycling option. These revolutions promote circular economic practices never before conceived in these settings.


Nitrile, latex and vinyl gloves are necessary for safety but are a persistent staple of nearby landfills. They do not biodegrade and may contain biohazards. Recycling materials covered in medical waste is challenging, leading companies to find downcycling more productive. 

A San Diego biotech company collaborated with the RightCycle program to refashion glove byproducts as trellises and furniture, saving their lab up to 200 tossed gloves daily. The innovation proves environmental dedication does not have to disrupt lab workflows, which is a notable deterrent for many operations.

A study revealed the durability of discarded and treated rubber gloves. Elements like acrylonitrile and carboxylic acid contribute to their defensive structure while maintaining flexibility, but even they degrade over time when exposed to certain chemicals. Results demonstrated processes like ultraviolet radiation and solutions like alcohol are not as detrimental to structural integrity as perceived. 

Various disinfection methods can bring gloves back to life for 20 uses, solving PPE shortages, which became rampant primarily after the COVID-19 pandemic. Expanded disinfection opens the door for viable glove recycling programs. 

Several third parties offer shipping boxes for medical or higher education facilities to send away waste for repurposing. Companies like Terracycle, Medline and Kimberly-Clark RightCycle employ advanced sanitization practices to make gloves more eco-friendly. For example, Terracycle turns gloves into playground surfaces and floor tiles from a processed rubberized powder.

Polystyrene and Polymethyl Methacrylate

Researchers from the University of Alabama decided to take two of the most ubiquitous plastics in lab settings — polystyrene and polymethyl methacrylate — and use membrane science to upcycle them. This overcomes concerns some have about some modern recycling processing being too harsh.

The study explored how upcycling could make water filtration membranes more effective. They formulated operable flat-sheet membranes from the reused plastics, creating a less hydrophilic product with more precise pore size.

Advancements in Recycling

Recycling infrastructure is expanding its accessibility and capabilities to accept more materials and complex objects. Have researchers found more efficient, practical ways to dismantle tossed medical equipment?


Digitizing labs signifies a transition from analog to mechanized operations. E-waste is one of the most pervasive problems in all industries — labs included. Equipment is more likely to become defunct faster as planned obsolescence permeates lab and consumer technologies. 

Everything from outdated blood analyzers, catalytic converters, and centrifuges to old laptops and computers needs somewhere to go. Their toxic lithium batteries also need care. A University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign lab engineered a way to separate more metals from discarded lab electronics. 

The team used oxidation, leaching and reduction to sort precious metals from dissolved catalytic converters. They enhanced the process’s sustainability by incorporating a recyclable organic solvent, making the system more close-looped. The research reclaims necessary and expensive metals to create more lab equipment instead of mining new raw materials from pristine environments. 

Shredded Lab Plastics

Single-use tools and countless peripherals end up in lab waste bins. Their diversity in application, size, shape and plastic compositions makes blanket solutions nearly impossible. Most go through incineration for safety reasons and facilities lack curated machinery to tackle unique lab equipment. Recycling instead of burning would cut emissions of lab plastic by up to 74% with adequate decontamination. Some businesses are prepared to tackle lab plastics for a cleaner planet.

An MIT-led project joined GreenLabs to provide recycling services to over 200 labs across campus. The project has run for several years, increasing the pounds per week it gathers annually. In 2022, the Environment, Health and Safety (EHS) Office at MIT estimated the collaboration salvaged 280 pounds of plastic weekly compared to 170 in 2020.

The project shreds the collected waste, eliminating the need for complex recycling technology to identify and categorize items based on shape and components. Then, manufacturers repurpose it as molds for injection products like syringes and test tubes. They strive to eliminate the need for additives, simply using the waste byproduct as the foundation.

This initiative’s success is partially due to its setup and the end user’s convenience. However, an online waste request platform streamlines and expands the collection service area. The strategy is an inside look into how digital tools simplify and encourage modern green behaviors on a wide scale.

Revolutions in 3D Printing

3D printing is a potent combination of leveraging recyclable materials while transforming them into something new. What lab waste has gone into printers, and what do they turn into to make research more sustainable?

Circular Plastics

What if Petri dishes could transform into energy harvesters? Researchers determined 3D printers could evolve into thin filament wires with notable triboelectric qualities. The wires reached a 185-voltage capacity and demonstrated multipurpose applications like harnessing energy and powering exercise counters.

Students from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) discovered another way to recycle lab equipment with 3D printers. The school reuses waste plastic similarly to the aforementioned shredding techniques but uses the machine to forge new lab equipment, waste bins and furniture. The controlled environment of the plastic recycling plant permits the school to eliminate pollutants it would produce through antiquated means, like incineration.

Organic Waste

The LSHTM printer also assembled machinery to repurpose food waste. Green waste, including the researchers’ meal leftovers, goes into a 3D-printed biodigester. It transforms the feedstock into methane and a slurry. 

The methane powers a restaurant with renewable energy. The innovation will inspire long-term research modeling for how the reused lab waste improves indoor air quality over time. The bio-based slurry is useful as a chemical-free fertilizer for the department’s community garden. The combo will help the unit achieve net zero emissions by 2030.  

Though numerous modern lab waste recycling applications are for the medical industry, this demonstrates how versatile these inventions can be outside laboratory environments. The food and beverage industry would amplify lab settings to achieve greener objectives with this printed equipment.


Groundbreaking research also discovered disposable gloves are a suitable additive for 3D-printed concrete. Including recycled glove fibers also makes the printing process run more smoothly. Tests proved they slashed carbon dioxide emissions while increasing flexural strength by 80% and the buildability index by 100%. 

Circular Lab Waste Initiatives

All sectors must participate in research, but its safety and data integrity demand labs to produce waste. Striking a balance between greener mentalities and productive scientific environments is near. Enhanced recycling and upcycling means habitats will not suffer residual damage from biohazards and microplastic lab waste. Life cycles of everything from gloves to staff lunches are extending, validating humanity’s green breakthroughs.