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Disposal Done Right

Disposing of unwanted or outdated lab chemicals has always been somewhat of a troublesome, expensive, and sometimes outright dangerous process. Ironically, the introduction in the UK of legislation designed to make this practice simpler has not, in our experience, always had the desired effect.

by Stewart Gillham
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While rules governing lab waste vary, common sense best practices should prevail

One of the main factors in this is the change in responsibility for the chemicals’ safe disposal. Traditionally, the spotlight had always been on the waste disposal company to ensure that safety standards were met and that correct disposal procedures were followed. In more recent years, however, there has been a great shift in focus and responsibility to the person or lab that produced the waste; this is where things begin to get tricky in lab waste disposal.

To get a handle on just why, we need to realize that although these laboratory chemicals are usually stored and used in only small quantities, they are still classified pretty much the world over as hazardous waste.

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Disposal in the US is governed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and in the UK by The Environment Agency (EA). Both agencies are tasked with protecting the environment and can enforce large fines and, in extreme cases, a custodial sentence for the incorrect disposal of hazardous waste.

Due to the extra responsibilities involved in disposal paperwork and labeling, some labs were avoiding collections altogether, in some cases leaving waste to build up for years in deteriorating packaging and overflowing storage cabinets.

While this might have seemed a minor issue—after all, we’re not talking about large quantities here—it’s actually where most of the issues that we’ve helped resolve were created.

The first problem we have is the containers the chemicals are stored in. Many of the most commonly used laboratory chemicals are highly corrosive, and over time these can perish seals and lids, meaning vapors and the liquids themselves can potentially escape into the environment.

Second, over time the labels on these types of materials can become illegible or disappear altogether due to dampness or splash back from the chemicals’ usage eroding them away. One of the main issues with this is that when it comes time for the chemicals’ eventual disposal, it can become a nightmare for the disposal company trying to identify them, which can lead to costly analytical fees. Finally, as the waste builds up and storage suddenly becomes an issue, incompatible liquids are commonly found stored next to each other. Throughout our years in waste disposal, we have found this is definitely one of the common reasons, if not the most common, for accidental damage to both the environment and human health. Leaking oxidizers have been found next to unsealed flammables, explosives next to combustibles—and it certainly doesn’t take a lab technician to work out that this really isn’t a good idea!

This growing problem was well managed for schools, colleges, and universities in the US with the introduction of the Academics Laboratories Rules, whereby it was legislated that labs must have unwanted or outdated lab chemicals collected every six months. Also, students and professors alike now have to follow a carefully designed lab management plan that has been specifically devised to identify and ensure best practices.

Although this was really enforceable only for educational labs, some of the rules and procedures would be a great idea for all facilities using and disposing of hazardous chemical waste. We’ve cherry-picked some of the best of them (and some ideas of our own) to help those keen to sharpen up the health and safety procedures in their own labs.

Container labeling and management

Labels should contain the following information:

  • The words “Unwanted Material”
  • A bar code to track the container
  • Accumulation start date
  • General information about the laboratory generating the unwanted material (person generating the material, department, building, room number, phone number)

If possible, use the original manufacturer label. This label is located on the original container. However, it is important to clarify that it can be used as an alternate label only if it is in good and legible condition.

Good condition means that it is clearly readable, not torn or missing information. The laboratory worker must add the words “Unwanted Material” to the container, plus the accumulation start date. This is not an approved option if any chemical materials other than the ones stated on the original label are stored in the container.

Two types of containers should be used in the laboratory to hold unwanted materials: working and nonworking containers.

The working containers (maximum size one gallon) should be smaller and used at benches or work stations to collect unwanted material from experiments or procedures.

Nonworking containers (maximum size five gallons) are larger and should be sealed, unless they are being used to decant the unwanted material.

For the safe and suitable handling of all unwanted materials, it is essential to select the appropriate containers. The following provides guidelines for the appropriate selection of containers to be used for the handling of unwanted materials at laboratories:

  • The most appropriate container for the different types of unwanted materials should be used.
  • Separate containers should be used for nonhazardous unwanted materials, biomedical, and radioactive waste mixtures, among others.
  • Separate containers should be used for liquids, solids, and gases.
  • Containers should be compatible with the properties of the materials to be contained (e.g., acids must not be stored in metallic containers).
  • Plastic and glass containers should be used for unwanted materials handling. They can either be new or reused containers of chemical substances used in the laboratories. Containers must be clean and free of polluting agents and must have their original caps.
  • Plastic containers should be made of polyethylene (HDPE or LDPE), polypropylene, polystyrene (PET), polymers of vinyl, or TEFLON (e.g., polyetrafluorethylene (PTFE) and fluorinated ethylene propylene (FEP)).
  • Glass containers of chemical substances can be reused (e.g., soda lime) or glasswork made especially for laboratory use by known brands, such as Pyrex, Kimax, Corning, and Kimble.

Training for laboratory workers

It’s highly recommended that all lab workers be familiar with the laboratory management plan and be capable of working to it. Workers can be students, professors, employees, and anyone who has access to and use of the laboratory chemicals.

Removal of unwanted material

Unwanted materials will be removed from the laboratory using a rolling six-month approach—that is, each container will be removed within six months of its accumulation start date. 

Only a fully licensed waste management company may be called in to collect and dispose of the chemical waste. A copy of the company’s waste disposal license should be kept for your records.

It is also important to ensure that collection is carried out in keeping with the latest legislative paperwork. This can be checked by contacting your relevant environmental agency, and copies of the paperwork should be kept for as long as possible as proof that the waste was disposed of properly.

It is not recommended that a laboratory accumulate more than 55 gallons of unwanted material before arranging a hazardous waste collection.

Some of the above are in fact compulsory for educational labs choosing to have their hazardous waste disposal regulated by the Academics Laboratories Rules, while others are suggestions.

As previously mentioned, the regulations and rules governing lab waste disposal do vary from country to country, but the underlying theme would have to be that wherever possible, whether a lab is industrial, government-run, or academic, common sense best practices really are the best policy.