Cutting Hazardous Waste Disposal Costs In Lab Research

Few laboratory researchers would question the need for hazardous materials in certain experimental procedures. The radioactive isotope P32, for instance, is vital in DNA research, and hazardous solvents such as xylene and methylene chloride are virtual staples of organic chemistry and biochemistry. But the cost of disposing of such materials now routinely exceeds their purchase price, adding significantly to expenses in already-tight research budgets. And this cost is rising, driven largely by

By | April 19, 1993

Few laboratory researchers would question the need for hazardous materials in certain experimental procedures. The radioactive isotope P32, for instance, is vital in DNA research, and hazardous solvents such as xylene and methylene chloride are virtual staples of organic chemistry and biochemistry. But the cost of disposing of such materials now routinely exceeds their purchase price, adding significantly to expenses in already-tight research budgets. And this cost is rising, driven largely by a host of federal, state, and local regulations designed to protect lab workers and the environment.

"Research dollars are in short supply, and scientists have to fight hard for their grants," says Rebecca Jehorek, program director for Chemical Safety, a firm that produces waste management software in Richmond, Calif. "And in the last two years, they've had to spend a great deal of money that they didn't spend before on waste disposal."

Scientists and lab directors say that there are many ways to cut down on hazardous waste. These include the following measures: * Substitute a safe chemical for one that is hazardous. Non- hazardous degreasers have been developed to replace xylene, for example. * If a safe alternative is not available, a less-hazardous chemical, such as toluene, can sometimes be used in place of a very hazardous one, such as benzene. * Practice microscale laboratory techniques whenever possible. * Purchase analytical instruments that are sensitive to small volumes. * Segregate hazardous materials and label with care. In some places, unlabeled materials must be treated as hazardous waste. Mixed waste requires the more costly disposal route. * Use secondary containment procedures--dishpan under bottles of chemicals; seismic braces on shelves. Spilled chemicals must be treated as hazardous waste in many places. * Share surplus materials. A central stockroom and an up-to-date hazardous materials inventory are key ingredients in this effort. * Buy only in volumes you need. Initial purchase savings on large quantities are often offset by disposal costs. * Review current practices and revise where possible. For example, establish detergent and hot water as the routine glassware cleaning materials and use chromic acid only when absolutely necessary. --C.D.P.

As a result, across the United States, scientists in commercial and academic laboratories of all sizes are looking for ways to cut waste disposal costs. For the most part, this means shopping carefully for products and services to help them contain and dispose of their lab wastes.

More and more, however, lab researchers are turning to minimizing the amounts of hazardous materials used as a part of their disposal strategies. Efforts in this direction range from the elementary to the technically complex, but regardless of method, minimization tactics make sense, says Jeff Sacre, industrial health and safety manager at the Center for Hazardous Materials Research (CHMR) in Pittsburgh.

"There is a great opportunity to reduce hazardous lab waste, which is good for the environment, but it also makes good economic sense," says Sacre. "It takes a little effort initially, but in the long run it's very cost-effective."

Hazardous waste disposal is a complex issue for research labs. There are different categories of hazardous waste: chemical, radioactive, biomedical (assumed to be infectious), and so-called mixed waste (a combination of two or more kinds of hazardous materials).

For each category of hazardous waste, there is a corresponding regulatory agency. When asked to enumerate the agencies that New York City-based Rockefeller University deals with regarding hazardous waste, Edward L. Gershey, the university's director of laboratory safety, reels off a list that includes: the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and Department of Transportation (DOT).

This is a lengthy roster, but these are only the federal agencies that regulate Rockefeller's waste. "The state and city have their counterparts," Gershey explains. "New York state and city health departments have bureaus that deal with radiation control. There are state and city environmental conservation agencies; a state OSHA; state and city DOT counterparts, and so on."

Each agency exerts some measure of control over how Rockefeller disposes of its waste, and, unfortunately, federal, state, and city regulations do not always agree with each other.

"If you're dealing with one facility in one location, keeping up with all the hazardous waste-related regulations is a job," says Sacre of CHMR. "But if you're dealing with an organization that has facilities in different states or in different EPA regions, it becomes more of a nightmare than a job."

Disposal methods for hazardous lab waste vary according to the regulations of the different governmental jurisdictions as well as according to waste type. The options for disposing of radioactive waste, for example, include holding it on-site until it decays and then shipping it to a commercial burial facility. (There are only two such facilities in the United States, one in South Carolina and one in Washington state. Only the site in South Carolina is able to receive waste from states outside the northwest region.)

Not all labs have the option of shipping radioactive waste off- site, however. Radioactive waste generated by 1,065 labs at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor must be stored indefinitely, since the state has no low-level radioactive waste disposal facility of its own, and because no other site will take waste generated in Michigan. "This state chose not to participate in long-range federal planning for radioactive waste disposal," says Joseph Owsley, director of news and information services for the university. "We have nowhere to send our waste."

Medical waste can often be treated on-site so that it is no longer regulated as hazardous waste. After being autoclaved or soaked in chlorine, for example, liquid medical waste can usually be discarded via the sewer and solid waste can be destroyed by shredding and disposed of as regular trash. Here, too, local regulations dictate the final disposal method. Many states have regulations against burial of medical waste, so in those states it must be incinerated.

How does a researcher or lab administrator keep up with all of this? It's not easy, these individuals say. "If your job is research, it's very difficult to keep up with all regulatory requirements," says Sacre.

With all of this in mind, strategies for minimization of hazardous lab waste make increasing sense. The first step, according to several sources, should be to "get the big picture," taking a look at the lab from the perspective of hazardous materials. It wouldn't hurt to have an outside consultant do this, according to Sacre.

"It's good to have a fresh set of eyes take a look at what's going on in a lab," he says. "There have been breakthroughs in chemical substitutions and treatment processes that the people in a lab might not be aware of."

Next, experts advise, scientists should make a comprehensive inventory of all hazardous materials in use and in storage. Says Chemical Safety's Jehorek, "When you can follow the life cycle of a chemical from when it enters your facility until it leaves, you can make effective minimization efforts. When you see only a piece of this picture, you'll be ineffective."

Sacre agrees with the importance of an inventory. "The most critical thing you can do is inventory the chemicals coming in and the waste going out. That's important to ensure that disposal is appropriate. If you're not finding the waste coming out of the lab that you should, it might be going down the drain or into the trash or up a vapor hood."

There is software that helps with the task of cataloging and managing hazardous materials. One package, Environmental Management System (EMS) from Chemical Safety, keeps track of hazardous materials and prints out reports needed by the different regulatory agencies. The program also permits users to search an electronic database of materials safety data sheets (MSDS).

Searching a materials database is useful because it simplifies the task of finding alternatives to hazardous materials--another minimization strategy. The EMS package works in conjunction with the MSDS database put out on CD-ROM by the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety. This MSDS database is comprehensive and updated quarterly, according to Jehorek. It is also reasonably priced, at about $300 for a single yearly subscription.

Rigorous waste labeling and segregation procedures can also help reduce the amount of hazardous waste that must be disposed of. Labeling is critical because many places require unlabeled materials to be treated as hazardous waste. Kevin Creed, director of environmental health compliance at Humboldt State University in Arcata, Calif., tells the story of a small, unlabeled gas cylinder that cost $4,700 to dispose of because the paper label had disintegrated.

Waste segregation doesn't exactly reduce the amount of hazardous waste that is produced, but it does prevent different types of hazardous materials from combining to form mixed waste. Mixed waste increases disposal costs because it requires the more rigorous form of disposal. For example, if a radioactive isotope comes into contact with waste chemicals, those chemicals must then be disposed of as radioactive waste.

Hazardous waste minimization strategies, like the topic of hazardous waste itself, are not entirely simple and straightforward. What might be acceptable in one state may be highly regulated--or even illegal--in another.

A case in point involves recycling equipment that recovers hazardous solvents such as xylene and purifies them for reuse. These are distilleries, basically, and they have several advantages. They not only can eliminate the cost of disposing of hazardous solvents, but also can save money on the cost of replacements, because the recovered material is 99.9 percent pure.

However, according to Creed, researchers should look carefully into local regulations before considering this route. Some states require a special permit for treatment of hazardous waste, he says.

Keith Brody, president of Black Rhino Recycling Inc. of Pittsburgh, which sells and rents chemical recovery systems, says that although the federal EPA does not require a special permit for a hazardous waste generator to reclaim its solvents on-site, different states have different regulations. "People are bombarded with regulations," he says. "They assume that solvent recovery will require another permit. The state of Pennsylvania actually offers a 25 percent reimbursement grant to labs that recover their own solvents."

There are a number of other practical ways to minimize hazardous wastes. (See box on page 17.) Any actions that minimize hazardous waste are worthwhile, for their impact both on the environment and on a lab's budget. As Gershey says, "Hazardous waste minimization results in one of the few tangible gains of an environmental health and safety operation."

Caren D. Potter is a freelance writer based in McKinleyville, Calif.

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