“We use research to solve mysteries, make discoveries and cure diseases, but along this journey a huge amount of single-use plastic waste is generated,” says Dr Helen Liang. “At the moment, this waste is sent to landfills or incineration due to concerns about health and safety, and the lack of appropriate recycling services.”
Research institutions worldwide are estimated to produce 5.5 million tonnes of plastic waste per year. As a PhD student, Helen saw the problem first-hand and wanted to find a way to make research more sustainable. “Researchers are aware of this problem, and many of them have been calling for a change to this waste culture,” she explains. “Working at that interface of being both an entrepreneur and a researcher, I feel the responsibility and see the opportunity to create a solution.”
An Innovation Award in 2020 enabled Helen to develop the company LabCycle, together with her co-founders, who she met at a SETsquared training workshop for start-ups. “The support from alumni is really important for young entrepreneurs like me,” she says. “The money is important, but it’s more about people saying, ‘Yes, we see the opportunity in this’. It makes you feel that you can make an impact.”
The precise method of recycling lab plastics is a closely guarded secret, but Helen tells us it’s a combination of chemical and mechanical processes that removes hazardous contaminants. “It’s been developed according to the standards of the NHS, and the health and safety protocols from different research institutes,” she adds.
Following a successful pilot within our biology and biochemistry labs, Helen is working with the University to roll it out across chemistry, chemical engineering, pharmacy and health. “Tests showed that our process creates 10 times fewer CO2 emissions compared with sending the waste to landfill,” says Helen, who was recently awarded a Royal Academy of Engineering and Enterprise Fellowship for her work with LabCycle. The Fellowship provides a further cash injection for the business, as well as mentoring, training and networking opportunities.
“I sincerely appreciate the support from the Centre for Sustainable and Circular Technologies, Department of Life Sciences, the health and safety team, SETsquared and alumni,” Helen continues. “We’ve had a lot of interest from external organisations eager to reduce their environmental impact. We hope to move as fast as possible to help them become more sustainable.”