The Importance of Chemical Lab Waste Disposal For Colleges and Universities
January 30, 2020

To protect the safety and health of your University and its surrounding environment and community, you need to implement proper chemical waste management. State and federal regulations require that all generators of chemical waste follow the correct disposal procedures and waste management in their facilities. Millions of dollars in fines have been leveraged against universities that do not comply with the EPA’s environmental waste management procedures.

What is Chemical Lab Waste at your University?

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines chemical waste. If you are unsure which of your lab wastes fall under their definition, you can check with your local hazardous waste disposal service, or check Code 40 of Federal Regulations.

Examples of some chemical waste material include:

  • By-products created from educational and research experiments
  • Surplus and unused reagent grade chemicals
  • Any items that have been contaminated by chemicals
  • Batteries
  • Used oils
  • Items containing mercury
  • Pesticides
  • Chemically contaminated sharps
  • Contaminated needles, razor blades, pipette tips, pipettes, syringes
  • Fluorescent light bulbs
  • Preserved specimens
  • And much more- check with your local hazardous waste disposal service for a more complete list

Why You Need Proper Disposal Procedures for Chemical Lab Waste at Your University

It is the responsibility of all your research and teaching staff to make sure the proper disposal of waste materials is followed according to EPA guidelines. Irresponsible or improper disposal of your chemical waste to the local refuse collection, into the atmosphere, or down the drains is forbidden by law.

The new legislation, along with increasingly strict environmental controls, makes it essential that appropriate disposal procedures are followed to avoid stiff fines being imposed on your University. These are some of the disposal methods your University should be following:

There are some materials on the EPAs ‘red list’ that should never be washed down your drains:

  • organohalogen, organonitrogen pesticides, triazine herbicides, or any biocides
  • cyanides
  • compounds with the following elements- barium, beryllium, boron, chromium, cobalt, copper, lead, mercury, nickel, silver, tin, titanium, zinc
  • hydrocarbons or mineral oils
  • ¬†nitrites or fluorides
  • poisonous compounds, metal phosphides or phosphorus elements
  • This is a partial list of chemicals- check with your local hazardous waste disposal service for a complete list to ensure you do not pour and dangerous chemicals down your drain

Waste Bins and Controlled Waste Disposal

Not abiding by the regulations and laws will lead to your University failing an inspection when the EPA, OSHA, or RCRA perform a routine examination of your facility. If an inspection is failed, not only will it be costly, but these inspections are disruptive and can leave your University with a negative reputation.

Failed inspections because of mishandled hazardous waste can add long term expenses that can occur due to noncompliance. Not correctly handling your hazardous waste can also result in staff or students being injured, as well as your insurance premiums being increased. Another disservice you will inflict on your university is if not handled properly when generated, your hazardous waste can become expensive to clean up. It is much safer and economical to handle your hazardous waste disposal properly right as it is created.

Any waste suitable for local garbage services, other than your glass and paper is considered controlled waste. This waste includes your dirty paper, rubber, plastic, and wood and should be placed in waste bins. Waste bins should be available in all labs and collected daily through your regular cleaning services.

Each of your labs must have a container for specific wastes that are not allowed to go with your normal waste bins. In one of these special containers, you should have it labeled to hold all broken lab glassware, sharp objects such as glass or metals, fine powders (which should first be placed into a glass container), dirty sample tubes, and any other contaminated chemicals that are not needles or syringes.

Your lab controlled waste containers are required to be emptied on a regular basis and should never be allowed to overflow. You are never to place any glass, fine powder, or sharp metal into a standard lab waste bin. Before placing bottles into the waste container, remove their tops, and make sure there is no detectable smell of chemicals coming from the bottles.

Risks of Improperly Handled Lab Waste

Exposure to toxic chemicals, reactions, explosions, fires, or spills is all possible risks when your chemical wastes are not disposed of and handled properly. These possible situations pose threats to your staff and students as well as other people in the area.

People’s lives can be at risk, or the possibility of serious injuries are present from not complying with state and federal laws when it comes to managing your University’s hazardous waste. You should check with your local hazardous waste disposal service, which is authorized to move and touch lab waste in a manner that minimizes potential risks to your staff and students.

Environmental Hazards from Improperly Handled Lab Waste

Students and staff members are not the only ones subject to risks from mishandled lab waste. The environment can also suffer serious consequences. Leachate, contamination, and pollution are all negative effects from hazardous waste, and will seriously leave a mark on the environment if your University does not handle them properly.

When waste from your labs are eventually removed from your facility, it not only affects individuals such as your staff and students, it can ultimately affect society as a whole. Lab waste is disposed of through three routes: into the atmosphere through gaseous effluent from incineration or evaporation, into our oceans, rivers, or other waterways through sewer systems and wastewater treatment facilities, and finally into landfills.

Your lab workers who are generating lab waste have an obligation to consider the fate of their used materials that they’ve created from their work. Your lab workers need to be aware of the significant impact their disposal materials will have to people outside the lab, and how they will affect the environment around your University and the surrounding community.

How Lab Workers Impact Proper Lab Waste Disposal

Materials become a waste by regulatory definition or a generator’s decision, and the first responsibility for it being properly disposed of is in the hands of the lab worker. These workers are in the best place to know the characteristics of the materials they have synthesized or used. It is the lab worker’s responsibility to assess the risks associated with the waste, and evaluate it. It is the lab worker’s choice on which strategy to handle; they must minimize or dispose of lab waste.

Lab workers have numerous sources available to them to help with making the decision on how to dispose of their lab waste. You can also have them check with your local hazardous waste disposal service for guidance on how to properly dispose of dangerous lab wastes.

Risk of Serious Injuries from Mismanaged Lab Waste in Universities

The EPA has discovered forgotten chemicals in university stockrooms through routine inspections of their laboratories. They have located a pattern of hazardous waste management problems in these research labs with their wastes being left, sometimes for decades, in damaged containers. Some of these containers are even labeled as ‘unknown’ and some chemicals have been kept in temperatures that could cause them to explode.

Laboratories in universities and medical research centers use a large variety of chemicals that perform an extensive range of work. If labs in your University are not managed properly, they will endanger both the workers in the lab and the community surrounding your University. The most serious problems these mishandled lab wastes can inflict include death.

To improve chemical lab waste management, the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) created outlines on how to properly dispose of these hazardous materials through the RCRA (Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.) They have also created workshops, encouraged self-auditing of your university labs, provide compliance assistance, and in some cases, taken enforcement actions.

In one case involving the University of California, the EPA located numerous violations of hazardous waste requirements, many of which the University disclosed on their own accord. The violations were stated to include more than 4,000 containers of hazardous lab waste. Some of these wastes included reactive cyanide, corrosive acid, ignitable paint, and photochemical waste.

It was reported that the university had to spend almost two million dollars and over 23,000 staff hours to complete environmental audits in forty-seven of their university facilities, their agricultural research stations, campuses, medical and vet schools, and other various facilities. The EPA did reduce the penalties for many of the violations when the university agreed to Incentives for Self-Policing.

You can now see the importance of proper chemical lab waste disposal at your University. Proper handling will save your facility millions of dollars trying to correct mismanagement if it is discovered by the EPA. When you routinely follow proper management, you will have no concerns when it’s time for an audit of your University.

You will not only save yourself and your university unnecessary expenses; you will protect the soil, air, wildlife health, and water in your environment and that of the surrounding community. Regulations to dispose of lab waste properly exist to help you know how to handle your hazardous chemicals. If you are unsure which procedures apply to the materials in your university lab, contact your local hazardous waste disposal service, and they will help. This service can come into your lab and show you how to label store, and dispose of all lab waste safely and properly.

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