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Little waste from laboratories at McGill is recycled

You’ve probably never considered what happens to petri dishes full of bacterial cultures, carcasses of dissected arthropods, or hydrochloric acid used in titrations once you leave the lab. Surely there is some special “waste disposal” mechanism for human bodies used in anatomy labs – it is probably difficult to fit arms and legs into a bio-hazard container. As a research-intensive university and leading medical research establishment, McGill’s many laboratories use and dispose of a myriad of chemicals, animals, and even human body parts.

According to Christian Bouchard, the manager of the McGill Waste Management Program, between June 2007 and May 2008, McGill laboratories produced 40 tonnes of biomedical wastes, 30 tonnes of flammable liquids, and six tonnes of radioactive waste. To put that in perspective, one compact car is roughly equal to one tonne. How the waste is handled and where it ends up – recycled, sent to landfills, or incinerated – depends greatly on the nature of the material. Currently, very little waste from labs is recycled.

According to Bouchard, this is largely due to inefficient separation of laboratory waste.

“It’s very difficult to recycle the material because you never know what infections or chemical substances are mixed in. With lab waste, you never have a clear idea of what it really is,” Bouchard said.

In Quebec, the disposal of biomedical wastes – tissues, organs, animal carcasses, viruses, and bacteria – is governed by the Regulation Respecting Biomedical Waste. The regulation requires all biomedical waste to be incinerated, and McGill contracts an outside company, Stericycle, to do just that.

Rene Gaunaurd, a spokesperson for Stericycle, spoke about disposing of cadavers.

“We collect and incinerate anatomical material – that means tissue and bacteria. We don’t incinerate bodies; we leave that to funeral homes.”

According Farah Jetha, an anatomy lab demonstrator at McGill, cadavers are rarely disposed of, and most often recycled.

“The cadavers we reuse are up to 15 years old,” Jetha said, referring to the approximately 60 cadavers the anatomy department keeps on hand.

Animal carcasses however, do not receive the same respect in handling as human bodies. Aside from provincial safety regulations, there are no ethical requirements that dictate appropriate procedures for the handling of animal anatomical waste.

Bouchard said that the process of disposing of dead mice as opposed to dead monkeys, for example, is not very discerning.

“It’s really just a matter of the classification they fall under [that determines their disposal destination]. They just go into a box or a bin and they are sent out to get incinerated,” said Bouchard.

Some labs do make an attempt to maximize the use of their wastes. Flammable chemicals, for example, are sent for incineration and the energy from burning these chemicals is harnessed for other uses.

Before disposing of radioactive waste, McGill Waste Management stores the material until it decays. According to Bouchard, the process can take from a day to over two years. The disposal of material that does not decay within three years though, is outsourced.