Creating new lives for “single-use” lab plastics
How Corning Life Sciences is bringing the industry together to reduce plastic waste through advanced recycling technology and more scalable sustainability solutions.
Biomedical researchers around the world labor every day to improve global health. However, as part of this work, modern labs use and discard a significant amount of single-use plastics, most of which ends up incinerated, in landfills, or, at best, mechanically downcycled into items like benches. This is standard practice to avoid contamination, with incineration being the primary disposal path due to concerns with biohazardous material.
But what if those single-use plastics could be restored to virgin-quality material? Reborn as new pipets, Petri dishes, and other critical tools for scientific progress? Closing the “circularity loop” from manufacture, to use, to processing for eventual re-use?
That dream is becoming reality.
What is circularity?
Circularity is the concept of planning for a product’s end-of-life when creating it. In a circular economy, once a user finishes with the product, it returns to the supply chain rather than ending up in a disposal site.
Although Corning is best known for our expertise in glass, we also produce specialty plastics products, including labware. And we’re using our scientific know-how to bring such plastics into the circular economy.
Corning Life Sciences teams are pioneering chemical recycling methods with the potential to drastically reduce single-use plastic consumption and waste by taking used plastic and reconstituting it into material that meets lab-quality standards.
“With this process, we can potentially make new life sciences products with this recycled plastic,” says Christie McCarthy, Corning Life Sciences director of sustainability.
The promising method involves chemically breaking down a plastic like polystyrene to its base, monomers of hydrogen and carbon, while simultaneously burning off any unwanted material, “cleaning” it. The baseline elements can then be re-combined to create virgin-quality resin feedstock for manufacturing new lab plastics.
“Re-using this plastic not only reduces waste, but it can save energy and lower emissions in two ways: We’re not firing up incinerators and we avoid the resource intensity of producing resin from scratch,” says Christie.
The need for change is clear.
Scientists make up only 0.1% of the population, but bioresearch generates 2% of plastic waste, about 5.5 million tons each year, according to one study. That works out to about 150 pounds of waste per researcher, annually.
“Waste is a very concentrated experience for researchers, a negative one for professionals working to help humankind,” Christie says. “The good news? We can do a lot to move our industry toward better sustainability practices.”
Achieving exponential impact will require collective, coordinated action.
To kickstart progress, Corning Life Sciences recently hosted the first-ever Northeast Single-Use Plastic Circularity Summit at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with support from partners including life sciences distributor Millipore Sigma; Cyclyx International, a plastics feedstock management consortium; and JLL, a facilities management company. Following a successful pilot in California, this summit brought ideas for chemically recycling plastic lab products to the U.S. Northeast, home to a high concentration of pharmaceutical, biotech, and academic research labs.
Summit attendees represented the ecosystem of players needed to create change, including academics, manufacturers, resin vendors, waste management professionals, investment consultants, and leaders from biotech and pharmaceutical companies.
Christie recalls, “We wanted to start educating people on the advanced technologies now available so we can begin scaling solutions as an industry.”
Participants rallied around sessions with key speakers from the Healthcare Plastics Recycling Council, MIT, McKinsey, and Cyclyx. Popular talks included Notes from the Trenches: What is Working & Not Working with Lab Plastic Waste, The Value of Working Together to Achieve Scale, and What's Next: Take Action to Make Life Sciences Circularity Real. Videos of select Northeast Single-Use Plastic Circularity Summit presentations are now available.
The event’s evident optimism and energy — coupled with pragmatism and scientific acumen — have inspired change-makers. A post-event survey revealed a unanimous desire to keep the conversation going. A follow-up summit is in the works.
“We really are better together. Alone, you can only do so much,” says Christie. “But by reaching out and holding hands with others, we can and will do something good for the industry and the planet.”