June 22, 2001

Recycling chemicals saves money, environment

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Johnny Vanderpool with Environmental Health and Safety fills a cabinet with chemicals to be recycled. (photo by Dana Johnson)

Recycling chemicals saves money, environment

At a time when the United States government is urging Americans to conserve natural resources by cutting back on energy usage, the Vanderbilt community is making a new effort to aid the environment by reducing the amount of waste it generates.

On May 17, the Vanderbilt Environmental Health and Safety Department (VEHS) ushered in the new chemical recycling program with their first redistribution day.

The new program is part of VEHS’s effort to reduce the amount of hazardous waste generated by the University and save money.

“The program is good because it reduces waste and recycles the chemicals in a manner that is very economical,” Katie Williams, a Cell Biology research assistant, said as she waited in line to select substances for her lab.

Located in the basement of Medical Center North, the redistribution days are held on the first and third Thursdays of every month from 2-3 p.m. During this time, representatives from any laboratory or department of the University may come and select chemicals from a list of available substances to be delivered to their labs or departments the next day.

The chemicals and delivery service are provided by VEHS free of charge. The chemicals are distributed on a first come-first serve basis. A current list of available chemicals is posted in the lobby of Medical Center North, the basement of Learned Lab, and on the VEHS Web site, www.safety.vanderbilt.edu.

The chemicals that become available for redistribution are gathered by VEHS through the hazardous waste collection program currently in place.

Representatives from VEHS separate chemicals that can be reused from those that must be disposed of as hazardous waste. Reusable and unopened chemicals are set aside and inventoried to be made available for redistribution. These chemicals are usually collected from laboratories whose experiments have been phased out.

The majority of the available chemicals are solvents, different types of alcohols, and acids.

“The types of chemicals available in our program, if they are not recycled, would have to be thrown out as hazardous waste, which is expensive for the University,” said Johnny Vanderpool, a safety officer in the Environmental and Waste Management division of VEHS, who is heading up the new program.

According to Andrea George, assistant director of VEHS, disposing of hazardous waste is a complex process. First, the chemical waste must be housed by Vanderbilt in specially designed storage rooms until hazardous waste disposal contractors are scheduled to come and remove it. Then, an outside company must package the waste to be moved according to Department of Transportation regulations. Finally, the waste is taken to disposal facilities where it is processed in one of several ways, which could include incineration or fuel recovery.

Last year, Vanderbilt, as a large university and research institution with a tertiary medical center, generated approximately 20 tons of hazardous waste. According to George, however, this number is not excessive when compared to the amount of waste generated by other universities of its size.

Teaching and research labs are responsible for producing the majority of Vanderbilt’s hazardous waste. Of this waste, “the majority is generated by the Medical Center,” said George.

After holding two redistribution days, VEHS estimates that it has saved the university approximately $10,000 by recycling 312 pounds of chemicals that would have normally been disposed of as hazardous waste.

The chemical recycling program provides a further economic benefit to the individual labs that choose to participate. Labs that decide to reuse chemicals through the program save the money that they would have used to purchase the same chemicals from a distributor, according to George. In this way, the program provides Vanderbilt with a “double cost avoidance,” George said.

On average, this can save an individual lab hundreds or even thousands of dollars. According to Amy Kendall, a research assistant in the Department of Biological Sciences, by picking up chloroform, glacial acetic acid, and butanol for her lab on the second redistribution day she estimated that she had saved $150. “For small labs without a huge grant, it makes a big difference,” Kendall said.

The new initiative has both economic and environmental benefits.

“The Chemical Recycling Program not only provides a cost reduction benefit to the University, but more importantly it helps preserve the safety and integrity of the environmental community by reducing the amount of hazardous chemicals that need to be manufactured, transported on public highways, and eventually incinerated,” Vanderpool said.

The Environmental Protection Agency encourages producers of hazardous waste to reduce the amount of waste that they generate.

“We (VEHS) have been trying to put in place more waste minimization programs,” George said. Last year, VEHS eliminated 5,424 pounds of hazardous waste by asking laboratory staff to substitute non-toxic scintillation fluid for the hazardous scintillation fluid normally used, George said.

Although the chemical recycling program is young, its founders are already exploring ways to improve it. VEHS has plans to expand the amount of chemicals it can hold for redistribution and to increase awareness about the program through mass mailings and e-mail. Additionally, VEHS hopes to create a Web-based ordering system, which would allow people to access the list of available chemicals and to place orders at any time.