Laboratory Chemicals

One of the best projects that was carried out by Zero Waste Systems Inc. was the collection, sorting and re-marketing of no longer wanted laboratory chemicals. We sold them for half price and in the process managed to supply the chemical needs of experimenters, tinkerers and all kinds of home experimenters who could not get through the onerous paperwork of the standard mainstream suppliers. Many “legitimate” researchers used our services, either because they believed in our mission or because they could get what they wanted, quickly, without institutional paperwork.

When a professor at a research institution leaves his lab for a new position, he typically takes his very best chemicals and leaves the rest to be discarded. They are put into a steel drum, covered with vermiculite (steam expanded mica) and buried underground in a chemical dump, intended for burying chemicals. The benighted parent institution following the wasteful rules of the regulator certifies this as “proper procedure”.  It is anything but.

Most of the chemicals are perfectly reusable and resalable.  All it takes is the entrepreneurial spirit and an understanding of what the chemicals are.

ZWS got its chemicals from all over. Companies closing down or closing a lab, the national laboratories which had tons of excesses (The Lawrence Berkeley Radiation Lab and the Lawrence Livermore Lab), universities and assorted other sources. You will be amazed that you will be given brand new, expensive and sealed bottles of many chemicals. We had virtually every solid element and a few customers making collections of all elements. Try doing that through a standard lab chemicals place. Do not imagine that you will be given “junk”.  If that happens, you are not obligated to take anything. If someone is so foolish as to create chemicals which are mixed together or unlabeled or reacted with air or water, that is their problem, not yours.

Will the regulators allow you to reuse and sell chemicals? Maybe! Maybe not! You need to negotiate your way through the regulatory minefield which is ever more biased against reuse (with the blessing of the so-called “environmentalists”). The rules are designed to make sure that waste is maximized and reuse is virtually prohibited. You can operate under the recycling exemption in RCRA if that is still in effect by the time you read this.

As always with Zero Waste projects, the core lesson is that it is hard to swim upstream to reuse when the commodities you work with are designed for waste and discard.

As to the chemicals themselves, it is hard to see how they could be better designed.  Occasionally, some chemical might need a stabilizer to prevent it from polymerizing or oxidizing prematurely. One example is styrene, and  a common stabilizer is hydroquinone. A particular stabilizer might lose its potency after a short period. A longer acting stabilizer could be substituted or a prominent notice on the container could warn of the need to refresh the stabilizer every so often. But the major redesign would be in the containers, most often glass bottles.

The bottles used for lab chemicals are most often the cheapest available. The closure is inadequate.  A thin glass lip, while smooth and making a good seal adequate for garden string beans, is expected to push up against a sealing material in the lid, sometimes paper, or polyethylene or both, and protect the contents.  A particular anecdote taught me how poor this seal really is.

We had one jar of ethyl acrylate that I remember.  The acrylates gave rise to the adjective acrid (or vice versa). Our nose receptors are highly attuned to these molecules. We can detect an absurdly small number of such molecules in the air. Every time I passed by this bottle, I could smell it strongly. I tightened the cap.  Then I put it in a plastic bag. Then I put the bag inside of a larger bottle with a tight lid. I could still smell the acrylate inside.

Most people who hear this story misunderstand the important point. They fall back on some notion of ethyl acrylate  mysteriously being able to sneak its way past a good seal and get out of the bottle. This is completely backwards. There is nothing special about ethyl acrylate and seals. EVERY OTHER BOTTLE  OF VOLATILES IN OUR COLLECTION WAS ALSO SNEAKING PAST THE SEAL.  The only thing special about ethyl acrylate was that we could easily detect it.  For the other volatile chemicals, we just breathed them in unknowingly.  At the same time,  if a chemical can escape the seal, that means that oxygen can also slip in past the seal to do damage. This is an unacceptable situation for the long term storage of fragile molecules.

What I would suggest is the replacement of a thin seal with a wide seal, perhaps a centimeter wide, of glass against polymer against glass again.  The polymer could be silicone or polyethylene, both quite inert, or some other polymer suited to the particular chemical inside.  Included in the cap should be a standardized nozzle and connector that would be used to flush out the air (oxygen) from the bottle whenever it was closed. Nitrogen or argon would be two obvious gases, though carbon dioxide might sometimes be the gas of choice.  The point is to keep the chemical totally inside the bottle and out of contact with a gas that might react with it. Sometimes pulling a vacuum inside the jar would be best, and would also help to compress the seal.

Changing the design of lab  chem bottles this way would not only let the contents remain unchanged for a longer time, it would also prevent human passers by from breathing in a cocktail of emitted volatile chemicals.  A design change is needed. It would be more expensive. But in the long run, compared to the awful waste of brand new chemicals in a dump, and the avoidance of disease, it would probably end up cheaper than the current, poorly thought out “cheap” design.

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