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Help Shrink Expanded Polystyrene Use in Laboratories

Updated: Sep 6, 2023

The Laboratory Waste Landfill Diversion Working Group (LDWG) of the International Institute for Sustainable Laboratories (I2SL) aims to reduce the amount of laboratory waste entering landfills from lab packaging and other sources. Expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam containers and packaging are widely used to send chemicals and other materials to laboratories because it is cost effective, lightweight, sturdy, and provides insulation. However, there are some concerns about EPS that have many lab users thinking about alternatives:

  • Most EPS ends up in landfills—though it is technically recyclable—increasing methane emissions and groundwater contamination, which disproportionately impact communities of color and low socioeconomic status.

  • Due to its light weight, EPS packages are more likely to be blown away, becoming litter and affecting marine life as it breaks down into microplastics.

  • Additionally, workers manufacturing EPS are exposed to over 50 different chemicals, including styrene, a possible carcinogen, which can have adverse health effects, including headache, fatigue, confusion, dizziness, and difficulty concentrating.

An EPS Cold Transport Waste Hierarchy was developed by the LDWG and can help guide laboratories in implementing effective and realistic methods to reduce the amount of EPS received and sent to landfills. The best option is to avoid the need for

EPS packaging in the first place. As innovation improves, the use of alternative compostable or recyclable transport containers is next, followed by EPS recycling and take-back or reuse programs. However, laboratories often have too much EPS for it all to be reused, and take-back programs require labs to store the material until it is able to be picked up, making those options less feasible. And even if the material is accepted by local recycling programs, EPS does not command a high market price, making it undesirable for recyclers.

The LDWG suggests ways labs can work towards the goal of removing EPS from the waste stream:

  • Build partnerships with other campus or community waste reduction advocates to find solutions that work for your lab.

  • Make it easy by creating a strategy that is clear for others to follow.

  • Get creative and "think outside the cooler" for ways to reduce EPS waste.

  • Be flexible and consider smaller, more feasible alternatives until you can build on them.

  • Align with your institution’s mission and frame the issue in ways employees and leaders will care about.

  • Replicate models that work for other laboratories and use them as inspiration.

If you have examples, case studies, or other thoughts on how to reduce the amount of EPS waste, please send it to and we’ll add it to I2SL’s E-Library. For more information read this LDWG Technical Bulletin, which was prepared by a fellow from the Higher Education Associations Sustainability Consortium (HEASC).

Annual Conference Call for Presenters Coming Soon

Just a reminder that the 2022 I2SL Annual Conference and Technology Fair will be held October 16-19 at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh. The Call for Presenters will be issued soon, so think about what you’d like to speak about—the theme is “coming together for climate solutions.”

Virtual Event on Advanced Lab Design and Construction Technology

I2SL’s National Capital Chapter invites the sustainable lab community to its multi-faceted 2022 Winter event, featuring three presentations on advanced technologies to optimize the design and construction lifecycle, followed by a live and interactive panel discussion. This event will be held virtually. Register ahead to secure your spot.

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