Science Has a Garbage Problem. Why Aren’t Recycling Schemes More Popular?

Research institutions need to reflect on their attitudes toward plastic waste and make sustainability a priority in laboratories.

Whether it’s encouraging the use of reusable cups, banning plastic straws, or charging customers for plastic bags in grocery stores, it’s clear that some companies and policymakers are beginning to take measures against the growing issue of plastic waste. It’s easy to imagine science as an answer to our current sustainability crisis, as it offers the development of new environment-friendly materials, low emission technologies, and the production of discoveries and evidence that can help us fight climate change. But could those working on the solution also be contributing to the problem?

According to an audit at the University of Washington, disposable gloves, made from nitrile or latex, are a laboratory’s main contribution to landfill waste, making up around a quarter of the waste sent to the trash by scientists. Gloves contaminated with chemicals are considered hazardous waste and must be disposed of accordingly to ensure public and environmental safety. Some researchers choose to reuse gloves that are still clean after one use, but this is not always possible — gloves can get sweaty, tear, and are sometimes tricky to put on once they’ve come off. Importantly, gloves are mainly a prevention measure and do not always become contaminated, so they are thrown in the trash rather than the hazardous waste bin, ending up in a landfill. Instead, gloves could be recycled.

Around 5.5 million tons of plastic are produced in bioscience research facilities alone every year — so why aren’t recycling programs more popular?

In the last five years, the University of Edinburgh’s School of Chemistry has diverted one million gloves — 15 metric tons of plastic — from landfill waste. The department was the first in Europe to sign up to the KIMTECH Nitrile Glove Recycling Program, also known as RightCycle, run by Kimberly Clarke Professional, a multinational consumer goods corporation, and TerraCycle, a company that specialises in recycling unconventional items. The scheme is operated not only in the United Kingdom, but also in the United States, with laboratories at the University of California Santa Cruz, the University of IllinoisUniversity of Texas Austin, and Purdue University signed up to the program. Between 2011 and 2017, more than 360 metric tons of waste — about 24 million gloves — were diverted from landfill because of the program. The nitrile gloves are turned into plastic granules that, after blending with other recycled plastics or being milled into a powder, form composite raw materials that can later be processed and turned into bins, garden equipment, furniture, or even rubber flooring and ground covering for sports facilities.

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