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Breaking Down Animal Bedding Compost: The UAB Experience

Composting the bedding used in vivarium cages and other labs conducting research on animals sounds like a no-brainer; the material is organic, regularly refreshed, and worth keeping out of the waste stream for both practical and health purposes. However, many institutions that have tried animal bedding composting have run up against myriad challenges, from finding a compost facility that is willing to process the material to restrictions from health and safety rules or departments.

 

The International Institute for Sustainable Laboratories’ (I2SL’s) Lab Waste Landfill Diversion Working Group has been gathering research and lessons learned from I2SL members for some time, but one of the best ways to learn about how to get started and pitfalls to avoid is hearing about one organization’s first-hand experience. During I2SL’s recent Education Week, Nick Ciancio, the former sustainability coordinator for the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), presented on UAB’s experience with animal bedding composting, including the logistical issues and challenges faced by a lack of compostable materials available, multiple waste streams, and regulatory entities. You can view the recording of his presentation on our Circular Economy for Labs Community of Practice website. One of the most important things they did to ensure success, Nick said, was to seek cross-departmental support in determining hazards, protocols, and impacts from the effort.

 

Five years ago, Nick met with the UAB Animal Resources Program’s director to determine the composition of their animal bedding, where bedding was used, the bedding disposal process, and any safety concerns. He also met with Environmental Health & Safety (EHS) staff to discuss the process of hazardous bedding disposal and identify any potential barriers to diverting the bedding from landfill to a composting facility. Working together, they were able to develop training for staff disposing the bedding to minimize risk of plastic waste in the composting stream. Nick and his team took steps to not burden the researchers or staff cleaning the animal cages by integrating it into their current procedures.

 

One significant challenge posed to the UAB team was identifying a composting facility that aligned with their needs. Unfortunately, their first partnership with an in-state composting facility fell through when the company liquidated. To reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with the effort, UAB wanted to find a composting facility within 300 miles of campus. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) Waste Reduction Model helped them to identify the emissions associated with transporting the bedding once they established a new contract with a facility 150 miles from the UAB campus in Wildwood, Georgia. Crossing state lines, however, complicated their licensing and added to hauling costs, though they were able to justify the added expenses.

 

To launch a successful composting program Nick needed buy-in from UAB’s EHS committee. He emphasized the importance of laying the groundwork for this effort by engaging with stakeholders across campus to determine associated costs, risks, and impacts of the initiative before presenting the plans to leadership. By working with the Director of the Animal Resources Program, Nick allayed the committee’s concerns over hazardous waste, helped develop new protocols, and determined the appropriate facility to start their composting initiative. As of November 2023, UAB has been composting the bedding from their most significant animal lab on campus, generating approximately seven tons of bedding per week. While their journey had setbacks along the way, Nick and his team at UAB continued to push the initiative forward. To learn about other waste reduction initiatives and experiences from other green labs professionals, you can join the Circular Economy for Labs Community of Practice or I2SL’s Lab Waste Landfill Diversion Working Group; to be added to the working group mailing list, please email info@i2sl.org.

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