How to Reduce Waste and Save Money in Your Lab

Learn different ways to reduce lab waste without adding extra work to daily routines

Photo portrait of TRACY WIEDER, MBA
Tracy Wieder, MBA
Published:Feb 03, 2022
|5 min read

Laboratories use a lot of resources. In general, laboratories use 10 times more energy and four times more water than office spaces. According to My Green Lab, they also produce enough plastic waste each year to cover an area 23 times the size of Manhattan ankle deep. If laboratories were able to divert just 2 percent of lab plastics from landfills, they would be saving 100 million metric tons of carbon dioxide.

But how can your laboratory do its part to reduce the amount of waste it produces?

Articles have been written about reusing conical, cryo-, and PCR tubes, as well as cell culture plates and flasks, after they have been cleaned and autoclaved. If your lab can manage to do this, keep up the good work. But for many labs, that kind of labor-intensive recycling isn’t realistic.

This article reviews the different waste streams and explores ways that labs can reduce the amount of waste they produce without adding a significant amount of work to their daily routines.

Biohazardous waste vs standard waste

Disposing of biohazardous waste costs seven times more than disposing of regular waste. Thus, it is important that laboratory staff have a clear understanding of which products do and do not belong in the biohazardous waste stream. 

Items that should be discarded as biohazardous waste are items that may be infectious to humans, such as:

Items soaked through with blood (all items soaked in blood should be disposed of as biohazardous waste, regardless of the source, to protect the custodial staff that manage standard lab waste)Contaminated sharps used on humans or infectious animals
Human tissue or tissue from infectious animalsBodily fluids from humans or from infectious animals
Human or animal body partsWaste that contains human disease-causing agents
BloodBlood products

Items that DO NOT belong in biohazardous waste:

Non-contaminated cell culture liquid waste—this should be exposed to a 10 percent bleach solution then washed down the drain with copious amounts of water.
Serological pipettes that have not come into contact with any biohazardous material—these can be disposed of in either standard trash or broken glass containers, check with your institution’s Environmental Health and Safety group for policies around the disposal of serological pipettes.
Pipette tips that have not come into contact with any biohazardous material—these should be collected in a box (to avoid injuring custodial staff) and discarded into the standard waste.
Non-contaminated Kimwipes, Parafilm, bench covers, paper towels, and consumables’ wrappers can all be disposed of in the standard trash.
Reagent bottles that held non-hazardous reagents—glass bottles can be disposed of in the broken glass receptacle or recycled to hold hazardous chemical trash, and plastic bottles can be disposed of in standard trash.
Non-contaminated sharps—these should be disposed of in your lab’s sharps or glass disposal containers or in a box that can be sealed and discarded into the standard waste.

Reduce, reuse, and recycle

The easiest way to reduce a lab’s contribution to landfills is by reducing the amount of waste they produce in the first place. Here are a few ways to reduce the waste produced by your lab:

1. Consider using vendor recycling programs, when feasible.
Vendors now offer programs to recycle all sorts of products, including gloves, pipette tip boxes, shipping boxes, plastic bags, plastic and paper wrappers, lab water purification cartridges, reagent bottles, protective clothing, and protective eyewear. Visit the Labconscious website for a list of some of these programs.
2. Use refillable pipette tip boxes.
3. Reuse three-ring binders by creating a used binder area in your department or institution where all labs can go to find binders, when needed.
4. Use reusable glass tissue culture dishes instead of disposable, plastic dishes, as appropriate.
5. Donate items you are not using to other laboratories, including equipment, reagents, and consumables, so that they do not end up in the waste stream without being used.
If no other labs in your institute need your items, and if your institution allows, consider donating them to a company such as MedShare, that delivers donated lab equipment and supplies to communities in need around the world.
6. Look into products that are made from recycled, biodegradable, and renewable resources—more and more vendors are now offering these products for items such as pipetting reservoirs, weigh boats, culture flasks, and plastic and glass bottles.
7. Make good inventory management a priority and only order what your lab will use.
8. Reuse Styrofoam coolers, and when your supply of Styrofoam containers starts to overtake your lab, recycle them through a Styrofoam recycling facility.
9. When considering ordering new equipment, check with your surplus group or department to find out whether there is any equipment in good working order available from previous labs—if so, not only will you be reusing equipment that could otherwise end up in a landfill, but you will also save a ton of money.
10. Use non-hazardous agents (which can be disposed of through traditional waste streams) in place of hazardous ones whenever possible—over the past two decades, advances have led to non-hazardous alternatives to agents such as radionucleotides ethidium bromide (EtBr), mercury, etc., making it possible to run a lab without ever needing to use these agents.
Using non-hazardous agents can save your lab a lot of money on hazardous waste disposal and is also a safer alternative for laboratory staff.
11. Keep recycling bins near each lab bay for easy access when working at the bench.
12. When you can, participate in local recycling efforts for regular recyclable items, such as: 
  • Glass and plastic reagent and chemical bottles (ensure they are clean)
  • Cardboard boxes
  • Pipette tips that have not come into contact with hazardous materials (for safety, place these in boxes prior to placing them into recycling bin)
  • Conical tubes that have not come into contact with hazardous materials
  • Ink and toner cartridges
  • Batteries
  • Paper

With these simple tips, together we can make a significant difference in reducing the flow of laboratory waste into landfills and work toward reducing each lab’s landfill waste stream by 2 percent. Not only will these efforts lead to a better planet for future generations, but they will also likely save your lab money in the process.

Fiona Young, MSc, (left), James Connelly (middle), and Ilyssa Gordon, MD, PhD (right)
Want to learn more? Join us live!

Toward a Sustainable Clinical Lab

Wednesday, August 31, 2022, at 11:00am-12:00pm EDT

In this webinar, James Connelly, CEO of My Green Lab, will discuss green labs and opportunities to work toward building more sustainable clinical labs. Special guest speakers, Ilyssa O. Gordon, MD, PhD, associate professor of pathology and medical director of sustainability at the Cleveland Clinic, and Fiona Young, MSc, senior medical scientist at Irish Blood Transfusion Service National Donor Screening Laboratory, will share examples of successful changes implemented in clinical labs.


Photo portrait of TRACY WIEDER, MBA
Tracy Wieder, MBA

Tracy Wieder has worked in the field of biomedical research for 30 years, starting as a lab technician, then moving into lab manager roles, lab director roles, and finally into her current role overseeing all research laboratories at the University of Miami Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center.

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How can your laboratory do its part to reduce the amount of waste it produces?