When it comes to retiring lab equipment, the old playbook is out. Instead of relegating instruments to the landfill, key players in the analytical instrument market—lab managers, vendors, and online marketplaces—are joining forces to develop green, budget-friendly options for end-of-life instruments. However, as this eco-friendly shift accelerates, questions linger about who will cover the expenses tied to the circular approach, from decommissioning to shipping and recycling.
The results of a recent sustainability survey released by Agilent illuminate the changing landscape. Conducted among 500 senior lab personnel across Asia, Europe, the UK, and the US, the survey touched on various sustainability issues, including end-of-life instrument management. Nearly half of lab managers surveyed are now seeking to recover their investments through vendor buy-back services (51%) or re-selling initiatives in the secondary market (45%).
However, even as lab managers become more eager to embrace sustainability, the survey also reveals the realities of economics. A significant 77% of respondents favor free-of-charge vendor recycling services, with only 5% willing to pay more than the actual instrument cost for additional recycling services.
Balancing demand and responsibility
Industry leader Agilent has prioritized sustainability since its inception over twenty years ago. Aiming for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, in line with the Paris Agreement, the company actively pursues eco-friendly practices, including major solar projects. Recognized for these efforts, Barron's has ranked Agilent among America's most sustainable companies for six straight years.
Aimee Whaley, Associate VP and GM for Certified Pre-Owned Instruments at Agilent, notes that the company's focus on sustainability has greatly aided its business growth. Agilent's 2022 data reflects substantial activity in instrument recycling and refurbishment:
- The company processed 6,600 instruments through various programs.
- 3,000 instruments were received via their instrument return program.
- Over 2,000 used instruments were repurchased from customers.
- Agilent refurbished more than 4,300 lab instruments.
- The firm sold 3,400 “Certified Pre-Owned Instruments.”
“In recent years, we’ve observed a growing awareness across all our market sectors,” says Whaley. “Sustainability-conscious customers are recognizing that Agilent’s CPO instruments, along with our trade-in and buyback programs, are effective tools in reducing lab emissions.”
However, the preference for cost-free recycling services raises a critical challenge for Agilent and other instrument manufacturers: how to navigate the balance between market demand and the practical responsibilities of instrument recycling. This includes managing logistical complexities, decontamination, and other associated burdens.
Whaley explains that Agilent strives to minimize its environmental impact through dedicated recycling initiatives, instrument disposal in select geographies, and reuse programs that let labs enter the circular economy through trade-up, trade-in, and cash-back incentives. Furthermore, customers located in EU or EEA countries can join local take-back recycling programs.
“The success of this circular approach hinges on a continuously evolving and thoughtful reverse logistics process, cost-effective packaging solutions, and diverse options for the reuse and recycling of returned instruments,” adds Whaley.
LabX.com, an online platform for purchasing new and used lab supplies based in Midland, Ontario, Canada, has seen significant growth since its founding in 1995. Sustainability is a major focus for LabX.com, demonstrated by their recent LabXpo Sustainability digital event, which concentrated on sharing insights into creating eco-friendlier and more efficient laboratory facilities.
Damon Anderson, Ph.D., technology editor at LabX.com, emphasizes that trust is a pivotal element in the growing interest in used and refurbished lab equipment. He notes that vendors are increasingly transparent about the sourcing and condition of their equipment. This openness, coupled with the provision of warranties and additional services, significantly bolsters consumer confidence in the pre-owned equipment market.
“There is an increasing number of vendors practicing a circular economy model, where equipment is evaluated and directed towards either resale, refurbishment, or salvage,” explains Anderson. “These vendors take a ‘landfill last’ position when all other avenues for repurposing have been exhausted. I think consumers appreciate this approach and are responding extremely well.”
When asked about how manufacturers are handling the buy-back or recycling of used analytical instruments, Anderson highlights the decommissioning and removal of older equipment–a process that often involves hazardous materials and requires substantial resources. “Vendors that offer a free removal service add value to the equation,” he remarks.
More evidence for the twin trends of transparency and the quality of equipment sourcing comes through in the reconditioning process itself. Anderson sees a heightened focus on sourcing equipment with complete documentation and chain of custody information. And increasingly, vendors are opting for in-house certified reconditioning processes with trained technicians.
Putting sustainability into practice
International Equipment Trading Ltd. (IET), founded in 1979, specializes in lab equipment reuse and serves a global clientele, including universities, research institutions, and private labs. IET plays a crucial role in various stages of the analytical equipment lifecycle, from full lab decommissioning to customized refurbishment to yearly maintenance contracts.
Ceylan Bilgin, director of marketing at IET, says the firm has witnessed a substantial increase in demand for refurbished lab equipment over the past decade. "Our customers are very cost-driven,” she notes. “However, savvy customers capitalize on this by acquiring lab equipment that meets manufacturer's specifications at lower costs, indirectly contributing to sustainability.”
Bilgin notes that aesthetics or the desire to have the latest technology are often reasons for some labs to replace fully operational instrumentation. As an advocate for STEM education as well as the circular economy, she’s keen for consumers to note the difference between refurbishing—essentially renewing and confirming the functionality of old instruments to OEM specifications—and recycling, which can involve breaking down components like circuit boards and raw metal.
Despite inflationary challenges associated with logistics, Bilgin notes that sometimes shipping even large crates can be incredibly efficient. IET credits its extensive reach to a combination of conferences, targeted advertising, and strong word-of-mouth referrals, highlighting the interconnected nature of the refurbished lab equipment market.
“While we don't follow formal sustainability metrics, we see significant value in our approach,” adds Bilgin. “When our business is healthy, we’re also making a positive environmental impact. Our model strikes a balance between these two crucial aspects.”
The shift towards sustainability in the analytical instrument market heralds a major change in how the industry operates. As old models of consumption and disposal in labs are turned upside down, a new generation of entrepreneurs emerges, ready to embrace and lead in the circular economy.
Editor’s note: Separation Science and LabX.com are owned by LabX Media Group.