Chemical Reuse

Since I am a chemist, and founded the only general reuse company for industrial chemicals (Zero Waste Systems Inc.) many people would like to know what can be done with chemicals.

First of all, chemicals are among the easiest materials or commodities to find new uses for. Each chemical typically has hundreds of uses, it can be converted to vastly different kinds of other chemicals and, since most chemicals are dangerous or poisonous and also pure and valuable, they have been carefully stored under reasonably good conditions, to keep them clean and identified. Though this feature fails sometimes, it generally describes industrial chemicals, even byproducts.

Our approach is not going to differ from any other Zero Waste project. We are going to inquire as to the function that each chemical serves, we are going to consult the ZW Principles, we will attempt to redesign the ways that each chemical is produced and used, so that reuse is built in right at the start and not added on post-discard, and we will make sure that someone has responsibility for a chemical at every instant. No discard, followed by an attempted use, will be allowed.

The first problem to solve is the design of the chemical use process for reuse.

  • Maybe a chemical will be used as a reactant, in which case it will be wholly or partially consumed.
  • Maybe it will be used as an incidental, such as a solvent wash during which it will become dirty or;
  • Maybe it will be incorporated into a product mixture, such as ammonia in a window washing liquid.

Some of these uses present no opportunity for reuse. A reactant which is consumed is one example. A cleaning compound that evaporates, or is mixed with water and sent away, as a detergent usually is, are two examples. But I can assure you there are literally millions of uses of chemicals which cause some or most of the chemical to remain after first use. In addition, when reactants are consumed in synthetic chemistry, it is because a consequent REACTION PRODUCT is produced and these are often found to be excess in their turn.

The number one concept to communicate to the designer is that his goal is not to simply prevent the excess chemicals from becoming garbage. Especially not by first discarding it followed by some kind of reworking including incineration and then a pretense that the expensive chemical productively replaced cheap fuels for energy. Throwing away the high value of a refined, difficult to produce chemical, is not a zero waste approach.

Some functions that chemicals serve in a reaction are: reactant (partly consumed), catalyst (not consumed), solvent (dilutes the reactants but remains afterwards) or stabilizer (a surfactant or pH control).

Chemicals that are left over in a process are frequently cleaners, including solvent cleaners. Others are lubricants, heat transfer agents, acids and bases or coating components.

Many chemicals which are meant to be consumed during use actually end up as excesses. An industry can make up a bad batch which they can’t sell. This is extremely common. Or contamination may occur or an in-plant or transportation accident may ruin a product. The amounts range from small to colossal. Frequently marketing mishaps cause cases or truckloads to go awry. Or the intended user simply stops using that product or closes up shop, with some product still in inventory. Some applications may be replaced or banned, leaving unusable inventory.

I am going thru this exercise just to show what a huge variety of chemical applications there are. In my business we encountered all of the above situations, and more.

The normal attitude is to consider any excess chemical as garbage and to search for any way to get rid of it, short of dumping (which is always the backup, but expensive). Household products may go into discount stores. Solvents may be burned in incinerators or boilers. Reaction mixtures are often incinerated. If they are inorganic solids, they may be buried in dumps. Spoiled products may be auctioned off. The thinking is “just get rid of it – I don’t care how!”

Once we rule out discard, and “reuse” that is not actually reuse but some low level way to get rid of something, we are left with, the one great common denominator in all of the myriad ways that chemicals can be productively reused is this: We need to find someone capable of using the excess chemical we have.

That is so important, I repeat it; we need to find someone capable of using the excess chemical! And this is the most difficult task we face.

And prior to that, recalling that discard must be ruled out, we must put in place some mechanism for any producer of an excess to carefully store, package and label his excess. So often a usable surplus chemical is turned into a toxic mess ONLY because it is not tracked and becomes some mystery pack down in the warehouse. THE FOCUS MUST NOT BE ON TOXICITY AND FEAR. The focus must be on reuse. The environmentalists have gotten this all wrong. Toxicity must be recognized and all precautions taken but as a management strategy, fear leads only into the dump.

There are hundreds of brokers for chemicals that buy and sell “surplus chemicals” or “distressed chemicals”. Each one, as he works, creates a database of companies and users that he learns about the hard way, who use particular chemicals. No one ever learns more than a tiny fraction of all the users but there is no other source of this information. The very best encyclopedias and reference books are virtually useless.

There are a number of government sponsored compilations of chemical usage data. One is intended to help firefighters fight a chemical fire in a local warehouse and so has valuable information about what chemicals are in warehouses, where they are and how much are present (SARA Title III). Some are intended to tell the public where a particular emission is in their neighborhood (Toxics Release Inventory). But every single one of these databases is carefully crafted to be either inaccessible to, or totally useless to, the seeker after a user of chemicals whom he could contact to ask about reuse.

It is abundantly clear that the one innovation which would open up the floodgates of chemical reuse is a national database of usage. A mere hint, or simple list, of users would be of very little use to anyone, though this is surely the kind of database that bureaucrats would dream up. This would consist of nothing but a chemical name and a list of possible users. For many reasons, this kind of listing would be virtually useless. What is needed is a listing with detail. Each listing for a user should include:

  1. Name, address and contact information for a user.
  2. Exact mode of use (solvent, reactant, blending, mixing, catalyst)
  3. Amount used per some period (a drum per week, 100 grams per six months).
  4. Grade used (Reagent, purified, technical, any)
  5. Requirement for purity (must he pure, can be mixed into any solid, will be distilled first)
  6. Mixed with what in use (e.g. will be mixed with acetaldehyde and dimethyl sulfoxide so those can also be present in any amounts)

The above analysis allows me to finally come to a realizable and important project that even local communities can embark on. That would be the creation of a local database of chemical usage. Ultimately local listings will be combined to become regional and then state and then a national database of usage. But the local community can begin the process.

Many local activists will have the impression that no chemicals are used nearby but that is usually fanciful. Chemicals are used everywhere. From agriculture to auto repair to house cleaners, most chemical users would never be identified as part of the chemical industry. They don’t produce or sell chemicals but they use them in huge quantities. Even small users are important because many excesses will come in small quantities. Consult the TRI database online (the Toxic Release Inventory) for leads to some larger chemical plants.

There is an ancillary benefit to this kind of database. The community learns what chemicals are being used in its vicinity. In this world of pollution scares and cancer clusters doesn’t everybody want to have this information? Here you can get that as a freebie while also helping any excess or unwanted chemicals to find a reuse home. If this had been done in West Texas where that fertilizer plant blew up incinerating 11 people and injuring ten times more because the government inspectors had no idea what was in inventory, a local project such as I describe could have learned all about the many tons of explosive ammonium nitrate that were being stored. This kind of effect is not an accident. What we are talking about is moving generally from the irresponsibility of the waste mentality to the high responsibility of the reuse mentality.

Here now is a valuable project i.e. local database, that communities can pursue, that will have a more salutary effect on local dumping and chemical pollution than all the richly funded projects the EPA bureaucrats have dreamed up over the last three decades.


Every week, the chemical literature reports progress or even a breakthrough in new synthetic chemical reactions that use less inputs (reactants) and produce more output products than was previously thought possible. Often these revolve around a new catalyst that is discovered. Sometimes it is a new way to form or alter chemical bonds using exotic new chemicals. Week after week these improvements mount up until, collectively, they have the potential to revolutionize the chemical industry compared to what it was ten or twenty years previous. The progress is relentless. Industry is usually slow to apply the new reactions but eventually a plant is built, a cheaper product is created, an old plant is closed and the equipment sold off. Less of the chemical inputs are used and more of the product is produced and byproduct volumes are reduced.

It is not my goal, in this general interest publication, to chronicle the ongoing progress of synthetic chemical research. Yet, to give the flavor of the topic, I will present one or a small number of such leaps.

I take my first example from C&E News, 9/22/2014, p. 5 reporting a new copper catalyst that allows some simple molecules to first reassemble themselves and then, in the same vessel, to react again until a complex but desirable molecule is produced. This replaces older reaction pathways that required intermediate steps of separation and purification. Now it can all be done in one mix.

Three chemists from Boston reported the research.

One chemist is quoted as: “In particular, this multicomponent reaction can be used to stereoselectively generate trisubstituted olefins – a motif that has proven to be the Achilles heel of many total syntheses.”

A critical term in that description is “stereoselectively”. To make a single stereoisomer is normally very difficult. Here it is being done with a cheap copper catalyst.

Many such reports use ethereal catalysts based on the expensive, noble metals, especially rubidium, iridium or platinum. A catalyst based on copper means that the reaction may soon find industrial applications.

I will not go into any more chemical descriptions than this. The original article may be consulted for more information.