‘Long overdue’: Campus research lab debuts recycling and compost bins

photo of lab recycle bin
Helen Vander Wende/Courtesy
Berkeley research labs are a significant campus source of recyclable plastic waste.

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New plastic recycling bins were implemented in UC Berkeley’s Br-Ün Lab on Monday, sparking wider conversation on nonhazardous waste reduction in campus research labs.

Helen Vander Wende, a campus doctoral student who helped bring the bins to Br-Ün Lab, said the bins can recycle numbers one, two and five plastics. Meanwhile, their lab has also acquired compost bins for paper towels. Previously, the Br-Ün Lab had 15 small landfill bins, but this was reduced to four large landfill bins alongside the recycling and compost bins, according to Vander Wende.

“We had no plastic recycling bins at all,” Vander Wende said. “We had a couple of paper recycling bins for scrap paper, printer paper and cardboard, so it was essentially 90% landfill and 10% paper recycling.”

Vander Wende explained that many containers the lab uses regularly can “easily” be cleaned and recycled. She added the new recycling bins are only for clean materials not contaminated with biohazard waste, which would still include most plastic containers.

Campus doctoral student Carlos Ng Pitti said his lab, Fletcher Lab, tries to repurpose items such as pipette tip boxes, tubes and glass containers, but most of them get thrown out.

“I go through five pipette tip boxes per week,” Ng Pitti said in an email. “You can imagine the amount of tip boxes a whole lab goes through.”

Currently, labs on campus dispose of recyclable plastics into the trash or biosafety trash, according to campus doctoral candidate Héctor Luis Torres Vera, who works in the Schepartz Lab. He noted current disposal methods of recyclable plastics are “expensive” because biosafety trash is measured by the pound. According to Torres Vera, new plastic recycling bins would decrease financial costs and environmental impact.

Vander Wende said they were interested in making their lab more sustainable and attended a meeting where someone mentioned an ongoing pilot program to provide these bins through Cal Zero Waste. She obtained the bins after spending several months emailing with them.

“The most straightforward way is to try and get in touch with Cal Zero Waste,” Vander Wende said. “They were really involved in setting up appointments and putting me in touch with people who did an initial audit of lab waste bins.”

Both Torres Vera and Ng Pitti expressed interest in bringing the bins to their own labs.

Due to the amount of glass and plastic that research labs go through, Ng Pitti noted being excited when he saw Vander Wende’s tweet showing the new recycling bins. He remarked that he is requesting bins for his lab and spreading word of their existence to others.

“Research labs are probably one of the greater productions of plastic waste across campus,” Torres Vera said. “This is just long overdue and I’m very happy to see it happening.”

Maya Banuelos and Aileen Wu contributed to this story.

Contact Maya Banuelos and Aileen Wu at [email protected].