NEB Podcast Episode #23 -
Zero Out Lab Waste – Panel Discussion

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Interviewers: Lydia Morrison, Marketing Communications Writer & Podcast Host, New England Biolabs, Inc.
Interviewees: Rowena Eng, Sustainability Coordinator, UCSF; Diana Lin, Senior Scientist, San Francisco Estuary Institute; Allison Paradise, CEO, My Green Lab; Lisa Anderson, Bioanalytical Scientist, Amyris; Scott Weitze, Lead Scientist, Labcon

Lydia: Welcome to the Lessons from Lab and Life podcast. I'm your host, Lydia Morrison, and I hope that our podcast offers you some new perspective. Today I'd like to invite you to step into a panel discussion with scientists, plastic manufacturers, and laboratory sustainability experts in the San Francisco Bay Area. This event took place in early February 2020 at the University of California San Francisco in a simpler time, before the United States was on COVID-19 lockdown. I invite you to join me in that time for 30 minutes to take your mind off current events, because considering the impact of science on the environment is always a worthwhile endeavor.

Lydia: Thank you guys so much for being here today. I know everybody has very busy lives, so thank you for taking time out of your lives to think about the current state of lab waste and its disposal and its impact on the environment. And a special thank you to our panelists, who spend a lot time everyday thinking about these issues. So Allison and Scott are here to answer your questions.

Lydia: Allison Paradise is the CEO of My Green Lab, a nonprofit that provides outstanding support for achieving lab sustainability, and Scott Weitze is the lead scientist at Labcon, the eco friendly lab device company. And they are joined by Rowena Eng who is the sustainability coordinator here at UCSF as well as Diana Lin, who's a senior scientist at the San Francisco Estuary Institute in it's clean water program, who really focuses on microplastics in the waterways, and Lisa Anderson who's a bioanalytical scientist at Amyris and the author of MIT's new study on lab waste. I'm sorry, laboratory gloves. So if Rowena, Diana and Lisa want to quickly introduce themselves, that would be great. Then we'll get started with our questions, and you all are invited to ask any questions that you might have as well. So feel free to interrupt!

Rowena Eng: Sure. I guess I'll go first. My name is Rowena Eng. I am the UCSF sustainability coordinator. I've been here for about a year and a half. I do have a special interest in green labs because I used to work in a lab. I also currently co-chair the UCSF green labs work group and the UC wide sustainable labs operation work group.

Diana Lin: I'm Diana, I am a senior scientist at the San Francisco Estuary Institute. We're a nonprofit that was actually created by the San Francisco regional water board to be a separate scientific entity to do the science to inform their regulations and other management actions for the Bay. So we actually have a long history of monitoring contaminants in the Bay. This includes legacy contaminants like PCB and mercury. What I work on, actually really exciting to me, is working on emerging contaminants, including microplastics where we don't have regulations. But I think the reason why we're excited about it is because we can actually do something about it. So yeah. So I'm really excited to be here.

Lisa Anderson: Hi, I'm Lisa Anderson. I'm a research scientist at Amyris, which is a company that engineers yeast to make bioproducts to replace products that are traditionally unsustainable. And so my day job is to study metabolism to try and make yeast cells make products more efficiently. My side job, and my passion, is sustainability in green labs. And so as I will talk about later, I've been involved with some green labs initiatives at some universities like UC Davis and MIT and also at Amyris.

Lydia: Perfect. I'd like to start with a question for Diana. Everybody's been really shocked by the reports of ubiquitous marine microplastics worldwide. So can you talk a little bit about the focus of the work with SFEI, the clean water program?

Diana Lin: So, I mentioned earlier that I work mostly on the emerging contaminant side. So this is where we're looking at new contaminants that either haven't been monitored before or there hasn't been very much. And so we're trying to anticipate problems down the road and catch them before they become a problem. So one of our most recent projects has been looking at microplastics in the San Francisco Bay. We're really fortunate to get a really big grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation to look at microplastics. This was a really unique study because not only were we looking at microplastics in the Bay, we were looking at how they were getting there. We're looking at pathways. So we're looking at urban storm water runoff, wastewater, and by identifying the types of microplastics that we're looking at, looking at the color, the morphology, the types of plastic, we can kind of make linkages as to where these plastics might be coming from.

Diana Lin: So if we see lots of fibers, they're likely to come from textiles, although there are many other potential sources. If we see lots of rubbery fragments, they could come from tire wear and other rubber products. So the purpose of the microplastic study was really to inform what are pollution prevention efforts that we can provide the scientific data for.

Lydia: And what are the early investigations telling us about the consequences of microplastics on the ecosystem?

Diana Lin: Yes, so one thing to remember is that microplastics are really diverse. There's just so many different types of plastics that we use. They come in so many different types of polymers. They have different chemical additives that give them different properties. Then once they're in the environment, they can come in different shapes and sizes like their fibers or fragments or spheres, and all of these different properties can have different impacts on organisms, so we're concerned about impacts to organisms that eat these microplastics and the physical shape, the chemicals, biofilm that grows on them, can have different impacts on the organism. Currently, there's not actually consensus on what the ecological impacts are. We still need more studies on that.

Lydia: And just to follow up on that, you talked about a couple of different sources of the microplastics. Did any of them come from landfills?

Diana Lin: Well, that's really hard for us to identify. We look at the microplastic product itself. We were looking at pathways, the stormwater pathway as well as wastewater pathway, and it's hard just looking at the particle to figure out whether they came from landfills. Many of the microplastics that we see could be coming from litter products that just break down in the environment. One thing I wanted to mention earlier was, while we don't know ecological impacts, this is something that we're still studying. We know that we're going to continue to use plastic and they're going to break down in the environment and microplastic concentrations are going to increase. So as we continue to study it, some scientists think that it's just a matter of when the concentrations in the environment are having impacts. And so we really want to take action before we've reached that point.

Lydia: Can you explain what the waste disposal hierarchy is?

Rowena Eng: Yeah, I'd be happy to. So the waste disposal hierarchy... Well, how many of you have heard of the waste disposal hierarchy? It's more commonly known as the three Rs. Reduce, reuse, recycle. Okay. Now everyone knows that. Okay. I would hope so because Allison talked about it in her first presentation. Okay. But I can give you a refresher. Also, to give you some more context, so plastic and lots of other waste, they create pollution and also emit a lot of greenhouse gases throughout their entire life cycle. So from the raw material extraction to the manufacturing, to the disposal, it's a lot of environmental impact. So this waste disposal hierarchy tells us that to minimize these impacts, we want to prioritize the three Rs in the order of reduce, reuse, recycle.

Rowena Eng: And reduce, as Allison mentioned earlier, is just not using something to begin with. When you're about to buy something, ask yourself, do you really need it? And if not, then just don't buy it. If you're not using it, if you're not buying it, if it's not created in the first place, you're preventing all of that pollution and greenhouse gas emissions in the first place.

Rowena Eng: And if you have to buy it, look for something that has safer chemicals, safer materials, and then focus on the second R, which is to reuse. So find a product that's reusable or something that you can repurpose. And third is, if the top two, the first two Rs don't work, then you want to be able to find something that can be recycled. That means it's something that can be turned into the raw material that can then be converted into a totally new product. And that will reduce the need for virgin material, which will create pollution and all those emissions and on the same level as recycling, you can also compost, I know there aren't really any lab products are compostable right now, but in your everyday life you should try to compost. The city of San Francisco actually recommends composting as the number one thing any citizen can do to combat climate change because of its two-fold benefits.

Rowena Eng: So, first when you send composting to a facility, the way it decomposes, it doesn't involve any release of methane gas, which it normally would in a landfill. And nothing is way stronger than carbon dioxide in contributing to global warming. So you want to send any organic waste to a compost facility and not to landfill. Second, the compost can be used for really rich soil that gets sent to Napa Valley where Scott is. He can enjoy the view of the vineyards. And because the nutrient rich soil promotes plant growth, it actually takes in carbon from the atmosphere. So composting is a win-win all around. If you can't do that either, then yes, you have to send it to landfill, which is not great. So remember the next time you buy something, think about the three Rs. For businesses, they should also think about the three Rs. It's an important factor to consider for both the consumer and the manufacturer.

Lydia: Considering the global recycling crisis, why is lab plastic being rejected from the recycling in the Bay area, and which plastics are being rejected?

Rowena Eng: We're actually, so we're very lucky in the city of San Francisco because we have not been affected by the global recycling crisis. What happened was China had their ban... Well I wouldn't call... It's called a ban, but they didn't really ban all plastic waste. They just are only accepting plastic waste that's 99.5% pure recyclables, which is not attainable with the current technology and practices. That's why no one can really send their plastics to China right now. But in San Francisco we are very fortunate because our waste hauler Recology already has a new recycling vendor. So we're still recycling the same types of plastics as before, and the city of San Francisco, they have very ambitious zero waste goal, so they even have policies and ordinances penalizing us for not sorting our waste properly.

Rowena Eng: You might have even noticed on campus we do try to put up signs to help people understand how to recycle and to sort their waste better because it does get very confusing because recycling is different here in San Francisco then even just outside in East Bay. For those of you from Berkeley, there are different sorting policies over there and so I can't speak for the rest of the Bay area parts of the country, but I'm just glad that San Francisco is kind of safe from it.

Allison Paradise: I love the little Island that is San Francisco.

Allison Paradise: Yeah. Most other places are not quite as fortunate. I wouldn't say that I'm an expert in this, but just to kind of pick up a few of the bits that I would share. I think lab plastics in particular have been challenging for people to recycle because they look like medical waste and a lot of waste haulers are really reluctant to take something that looks like medical waste, obviously. I like to joke, I used to bring back my pipette tip boxes when I was in high school and recycle them in my parents recycling, and I always think, oh my gosh, the people who that summer got that waste must've just been like, what is happening at this household, because it looks like medical waste. So there's a real disconnect between what's happening in the lab and what we want people to take and what our waste haulers even understand to be something that they can take, so that's one. And two, we produce a lot of plastics that are itty-bitty, that are just really hard to recycle regardless of whether they're made of the best material that you possibly could. They're virgin plastic.

Allison Paradise: Let's say they're even PET, which is super readily recyclable, but they're this big. Well most things when they go to be recycled, they're put on a conveyor belt and then there put through sort of a mesh and the openings for the mesh are big relative to the things that we want to recycle.

Allison Paradise: So I think that also poses a challenge for us as a community to think through, well how can we, how can we come up with maybe a creative solution to that? So I know UC Irvine came up with an awesome solution, but I don't know if other people have been able to adopt it where they put all their pipette tips inside of the box and then they convinced the waste hauler to accept the box. And since the pipette tips are the same material as the box, what do they care? It just doesn't get lost and put on the floor. So, anyway, those are just some things I think and challenges that we as a community face that maybe aren't faced by the general population, if that's helpful.

Lydia: And what are some alternatives that labs can use instead of single waste plastics?

Allison Paradise: I'm like looking like anybody else want to answer that one? I mean obviously glassware, right? Whenever possible, glassware is an alternative. I like to think about what lab must have looked like in the fifties. I don't know. Does anybody here know? I'm looking around, I don't know that anybody's old enough to know that, but-

Lydia: I assume there was a lot of mouth pipetting.

Allison Paradise: But I mean that there was some- Right, it was glass.

Scott Weitze: It wasn't plastic.

Allison Paradise: Right and there was glass and somehow, I don't know why we're so reluctant to go back to at least considering glass for a lot of the, I'm sorry Scott, for a lot of the applications that we're using plastic for. It's like we've become really dependent on this material because it's easy and we just throw it away and we're done with it. A lot of people will say to me, "Well, but then you have to wash the glassware." As if it's some sort of awful thing that you might have to wash glass. And I just think, do we all eat off of paper plates at home? Does nobody wash a dish anymore? We're okay to wash things, and dishwashers have become really energy and water efficient. So it's not that big of a deal. See now glass... sorry, so you shouldn't have asked me because now I'm just going to go off. Would somebody else like to add to that?

Allison Paradise: Who's not going to go on a diatribe about glassware?

Lydia: Lisa, while you've got the mic, could you tell us about the goal of MIT's laboratory glove waste cycle study?

Lisa Anderson: Yeah, sure. I can first start by telling a story about how I became interested in lab glove recycling. So, a few universities now have done lab waste audits and not only are there plastics, like tubes and tips, but there are lab gloves and they can be up to 40% of the waste that's coming out of labs, which is a significant amount. Lab gloves are essential for protecting researchers from the research and the research from the researchers. So they're a central part of PPE. When I was a graduate student at UC Davis, I caught wind of a program that the sustainability coordinator there, Alan Doyle, was starting with Kimberly Clark. And that was to collect lab gloves that were not contaminated.

Lisa Anderson: So ones that would have normally gone into the trash, you still want to have the gloves that are contaminated go into the hazardous waste, biological or chemical contaminated waste. So those gloves that would normally go into landfill, could be collected and turned into materials where they are pulverized and turned it in new materials like park benches. So I helped out that program and then at MIT saw an opportunity to launch a pilot program with the green team there. We did a pilot program collecting lab gloves. In over three months we collected 500 pounds of gloves, which is a lot.

Lisa Anderson: And so I did a back of the envelope calculation and I was okay, let's say half the researchers at MIT, were to collect and recycle their gloves? Just one pair a day that were not contaminated, that would accumulate 10 tons, which I thought was just massive. So with this pilot program, we were collecting gloves and I was getting the question often, does it make sense to recycle these gloves? MIT burns their waste for energy. So is that better waste to energy recycling? What is better? Is there a net environmental benefit to the recycling? So I reached out to some experts in lifecycle analysis at MIT, and we got a grant to study if there was a net environmental benefit to recycling gloves.

Lydia: And was there?

Lisa Anderson: And so the answer is, the results are fairly new and it really was eye opening actually. Let me back up to introduce what LCA is, life cycle analysis. So life cycle analysis is, a cradle to grave framework. How many of you have done a global carbon footprint calculator? Where you use to ask "What's my environmental impact? How big is my foot? Am I like one planet, two planets? A quarter of a planet?" So, the global footprint calculator uses greenhouse gas emissions, so carbon dioxide and methane. Life cycle analysis takes greenhouse gas emissions, also water use, energy use, the materials. And so it's a more holistic, complex framework.

Lisa Anderson: So for lab gloves, there were three points to the study. One was to determine how many gloves MIT uses. Does anyone want to take a guess, in one year how many gloves MIT purchases? Any guess how many?

Lisa Anderson: 1,000? 2,000? A million? Three million. Three million gloves in a year. So it would be one and a half million pairs. Yes. Three million gloves. They're ambidextrous gloves. That's huge. Two, was to look at the whole process, so from cradle to grave. So what does it take to make the gloves, to harvest the rubber from the rubber tree, and that's done in Malaysia. What does it take to produce it? To make them, to ship them, to transport, and then the end of life scenario. So the end of life scenarios in this study were to look at: waste to energy, landfill and recycling.

Lisa Anderson: Then the third was to look at the overall net environmental benefit. Okay. So what were the results? Are you on the edge of your seat? The results were that glove production was the largest lifecycle phase and so just the making of the gloves. So harvesting the rubber from the trees, and intuitively that can make sense, and so I think the takeaway there is to reduce as much as you can because just using the glove itself, just the production has a large life cycle phase. The second finding was that recycling to rubber had the lowest global warming potential.

Lisa Anderson: But I will comment there that recycling back to rubber is technically difficult. So nitrile gloves, nitrile is a polymer, an acrylonitrile polymer. Getting back to that same chemical is technically difficult. The third finding was that recycling to filler. So filler that's used to make park benches was worse than landfilling. So worse than taking to the landfill, which is wow, so this glove would be better to go to the landfill than to be recycled? But I will say there were key assumptions made in lifecycle analysis. In this study there was an assumption made the filler as sawdust, because this is such a new kind of area, a new field, assumptions like that were made.

Lisa Anderson: The fourth finding was that waste to energy has the highest global warming impact. So waste to energy, intuitively you think, oh you're burning something, you're getting something good out of it, you're getting energy at the end. But in this scenario, burning has the highest global warming impact. I will say that waste energy facilities, if they have proper carbon capture, that would reduce the global warming potential. So the burning of gloves is combustion. So you're taking carbon from the glove and you're burning it and it's going in the atmosphere. And so that's where that CO2 global warming potential is coming from.

Scott Weitze: So you mentioned that the endemic energy of manufacturers, by far the biggest thing. Did they actually look at different manufacturers and if it mattered who you got it from? Because if that's the biggest source of energy, it seems like that's sort of like when you get an SUV to get slightly better mileage, it actually saves a lot more than if you get a Prius that has slightly better mileage. So they look at different manufacturers for different gloves?

Lisa Anderson: That's a really good question. I think it was a great point. Typically in LCA type analyses, you take what you can get for the data and which is, I think we know what happened with this study. So the glove recycling program at MIT was through Terracycle and so that's where we got our data.

Lydia: And a question for Scott as a lab plastics manufacturer, have you seen an increased interest in waste reduction from scientists since the recycling crisis?

Scott Weitze: Yeah. So let's just try to think how to answer this question honestly. So the answer is no, but with a little bit of a caveat. So, a lot of people seem to know that there's a crisis. So we've had probably six or seven emails in the last six months of people that say basically I Googled "What can I do? You guys seem to care about this and I can't find another plastic manufacturer that seems to care about this." That's sort of damning with faint praise a little bit. But they found us in that way. I think it's at least engendering the question. I don't know that anyone has really found a solution yet, to be honest.

Lydia: That's a good reiteration of Allison's point earlier that it is certainly partially the responsibility of scientists to speak up and ask for the things that are important to you. So across the board, what sustainable design features have had the greatest potential for life science to reduce plastic waste?

Scott Weitze: I have a couple of boring answers. Sorry. This is literally true that I wrote this on the paper first. I wrote switch back to glass, which my coworkers are sitting here and giving me this look. But that's absolutely true. I guess I'm going to shoot down the glass a little bit because that's my job. We asked why aren't we doing it like we did in the fifties with glass and mouth pipetting, for example. There's a lot of reasons not to mouth pipette. There are certain volumes that don't work well with glass. So a lot of extremely expensive chemicals come in microliter quantities and if you use any glass, it's not going to work very well. So that's part of why there's plastic. So switch to glass if you can is not a bad thing. It's bad for me, but it's good for everything else.

Scott Weitze: The other one is, my boring answer is there's a paperwork thing that could happen. So I think it's Amyris actually, does this thing where they say, what are you using your pipette tips for? What are the chemicals? And they segregate them. And so if it's a chemical that's a bad...This issue of is it medical waste or is it live cells or is it a really dangerous chemical? Those go into a bin that's going to go to the landfill. That's true. That's probably a good thing actually. It's going to be treated as medical waste. But they also have this program and it's like very carefully annotated where some of those tips go into another bin and they get washed and currently they go into the recycling stream.

Scott Weitze: Now do they actually get recycled? Amyris hopes they do, but they're not really clear. They've talked to the provider. They say maybe, which is a fuzzy answer. In my mind, even though it would sell less tips for us, there are tons of experiments you can do with certain chemicals where if you just had a defined cleaning protocol, you could then re-rack those tips and autoclave them and reuse them. That's an administrative issue. There's actually a group back there, they sell a machine that washes those tips. That's not our company, by the way, but they do wash tips.

Scott Weitze: So I think that at some level, the amount of effort that needs to be put into, this goes into the bad bin, this goes into the good bin. The good bin gets washed and the good bin gets reused several times. Scientists don't necessarily want to do that because it's extra work that doesn't create PhDs, but it also creates a hell of a lot less plastic. So I think someone's going to come up with a system. Some big group is going to say, okay, these are good quality Labcon tips and we can rewash them a bunch, but we can also reuse them a bunch as well.

Lydia: And a final question, are there any greener plastics or new local disposal services on the horizon?

Scott Weitze: Sure. So there's not any that reached any sort of real scale yet. I have two examples. So there was one that was presented at this Genentech conference six months ago that was essentially a strong acids could reduce the plastic back down to its monomer form. And you could purify those monomers and you could theoretically put them back together and it would be an infinitely recyclable plastic. I love UCSF, and labs, and biotech, and all that, and as soon as the question is, this is going to cost me a nickel more, they say, oh man green is expensive. Well that's going to cost you a lot more quite frankly, because the scale... Polypropylene is basically free. It's all the other stuff that has to happen to polypropylene that really costs you money.

Scott Weitze: So if someone asked the question, are procurement groups doing anything about this? We can sit here in this conversation and say let's be green. Let's do the right thing. But until you guys push your procurement group to say we're going to spend 5%, God, really 5%, 8% of your budget to make a better choice for the same product, but it's going to be a little bit more expensive because of all this other stuff, like a plastic that's recyclable.

Scott Weitze: That's something you have to do because we can sit here all day, but we don't get to spend the money. The second example I wanted to give actually that little rack that we talked about that was biodegradable, but then customers threw it in the recycling, and that screwed up the recycling stream and it didn't biodegrade. So we actually replaced that with an HDPE that is biologically sourced. So it's from originally from sugarcane, it gets turned into actual HDPE. So it's not a biodegradable thing.

Scott Weitze: It's literally HDPE right. And it's actually a net carbon, it takes carbon out of the atmosphere depending on how you want to look at the calculation. But that's something that is biologically sourced. It's not biodegradable but it's something that is not being pulled up out of the ground as oil and turned into plastic. And that costs more money. We couldn't make tips out of it right now for multiple reasons. We couldn't make all our racks out of it because it's more money. But like that's our little toe in the water to try and get people interested in that. Because it is literally replacing plastic that would have come from oil otherwise.

Lydia: We're just past eight o'clock though. Let's just take a moment to thank our panelists for bringing their expertise here to share with us today.

Lydia: Thanks for listening to the panel discussion today. As always, check out the transcript of this podcast for lots of helpful links to further learning resources and join us for the next episode of Lessons from Lab and Life when I'll be interviewing James Bevington, who's a graduate of the masters in science studies program at the International Space University and is currently finishing up his PhD at the University of South Wales, where some of his experiments have been conducted on the international space station. So be sure to tune in and hear how science and space is more accessible than ever.

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About your host:


Lydia Morrison
NEB Marketing Communications Writer

Lydia is a scientist by training and a communicator by nature, and has a knack for asking one too many questions.

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