Annual lab swap diverts unused supplies from landfill

More than 100 Stanford laboratories got rid of unneeded equipment and reagents, and also found stuff they could use, at the annual lab swap, part of Stanford’s Cardinal Green Labs program.

Armed with spare pipettes, vials, centrifuges and chemicals, more than 150 people from across campus carted or carried their unneeded lab supplies to the lawn next to the Li Ka Shing Center for Learning and Knowledge, on April 12 for the Office of Sustainability’s third annual lab swap.

Throughout the day, scientists representing more than 100 labs sifted through the boxes and bins of lab equipment for unused or reusable materials worth thousands of dollars.

“A lot of these materials that would otherwise probably get thrown away don’t end up in a landfill. Not just that, they get reused. They have a second life,” said Rashmi Sahai, the assessments program manager at the Office of Sustainability, who helped organize the event.

Among the items for taking were laboratory staples such as ink cartridges, biohazard disposal kits, protein-extraction chambers, freezer racks, textbooks, hot plates, blenders and office chairs. A few gems of the past also emerged, including floppy disks, a Microsoft Windows 95 starter kit, filter paper estimated by the donor to be from the 1960s and cassette tapes from The Who and Steely Dan.

“We can give these items to someone who can use them, or we can just let them deteriorate,” said Rebecca Agin, a life science technician and attendee at this year’s swap. In addition to a variety of lab supplies, Agin brought several cases of wooden applicators that had been taking up shelf space in the lab where she works. “Being able to organize and contribute to sustainability is nice,” she said.

Identifying a need

Stanford’s campus includes about 2 million square feet of lab space, with about 5,000 research projects taking place at any given time. Research at that scale generates a significant amount of waste.

Trinidad Cisneros, a graduate student in immunology, was an intern in the Office of Sustainability when he came up with the idea for the lab swap. He said the event melds his interest in research with his love for the natural world.

As older labs accumulate stuff, newer labs need some of these basic things to start out.

“A lot of the items we use to conduct research are disposable, single-use items made out of some material that’s recyclable, some of it that isn’t. Seeing bags and bags of this pile up every day, you know, was heartbreaking,” Cisneros said.

The event falls under the Office of Sustainability’s Cardinal Green Labs program, which supports labs’ reduction of waste, energy and water use across campus. The program offers services including free installation of energy-saving equipment timers and low-flow faucets, a biannual campus cleanup event and rebates for energy efficient low-temperature freezers.

When Cisneros envisioned the lab swap program in 2015, researchers were already sharing used equipment within lab networks, but there wasn’t a centralized event for departments on campus. “We knew that there was a demand. We knew that this behavior was already happening at a smaller scale,” he said.

Tapping into something big

The initial lab swap event, held in conjunction with the School of Medicine, brought together over 100 labs and saved an estimated $100,000 in research-related costs. With that success, Cisneros and Sahai knew they had tapped into something big.

“Even as we were setting up our tables, people were bringing carts of items,” Cisneros said. “Soon, we were just so busy that we couldn’t keep up with demand.”

According to Sahai, the first lab swap diverted enough waste to fill a small swimming pool. “The numbers speak for themselves. It seemed like there was definitely a need,” she said. Following the event, emails from researchers poured in, asking when the next event would be held.

“Hearing that type of response was empowering and made it feel like we really did make a single-day impact,” Cisneros said.

The following year, the event partnered with the School of Engineering, had about 75 labs in attendance and saved researchers an estimated $60,000.

This year’s event was hosted by the Stanford Bioscience Student Association and was co-sponsored by Peninsula Sanitary Service Inc. and the Stanford Property Management Office. At the end of the event, PSSI collected leftover materials and either disposed of the equipment properly or donated it to local high schools.

Spreading sustainability

In addition to diverting waste and saving money for researchers, a major aim of the lab swap event is to build an awareness of sustainability in labs.

“As older labs accumulate stuff, newer labs need some of these basic things to start out. This is a way of not tossing out perfectly good items,” said Chelsea Longwell, a graduate student in chemical and systems biology who took some freezer racks from the event.

According to Cisneros, an important goal of the lab swap is to build community around financial and environmental sustainability. This year’s swap was just that — a sharing of not only materials, but of ideas, conversations and laughs at some of the outdated equipment.

“We can use sustainability to create community,” Sahai said. “That’s always fun to see.”



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