Given the exotic and exciting things that scientist play with and produce you’d think that waste disposal would be staggeringly complicated. Special buckets for certain kinds of goo, shredders for tentacles and mops specifically for flaming puddles would seem to be the bare minimum an average lab would need. Actually things are so much simpler. If it’s solid chuck it in the hazardous waste bin. If it’s liquid pour it down the sink with lots of water, job done.

The above is a joke. Scientific waste is mind boggling complicated and we totally do have different buckets for different goo and there really is a shredder for tentacles. But somewhat worryingly the above paragraph possibly sounded very familiar to a worrying number of scientists and lab managers. In my years of doing H&S and training the Venne diagram between people well trained in research and those well trained in proper scientific waste disposal was a nearly two entirely separate circles.

The problem I suppose starts at university and colleges. Science practical time is short and expensive to run. Students and teachers want to spend as much time as possible running experiments, teaching protocols and tending to ethanol burn wounds. They don’t want a quarter of their lab time to be spent explaining patiently how you can’t pour a litre of ammonia in the sink and leave the tap running for 5 minutes (actually happened). Instead they run an experiment and get a lab tech to clear up everything afterwards.

At best you might have had a couple of lectures on it but these are somewhat undone at the next lab session with “oh just leave that on your bench we’ll sort it”. It was a while ago now but in all my university notes there is not one note covering proper practice for clearing up an experiment. This hasn’t improved over time either, I’ve had students that have barely had a sharps bin described to them despite spending years in labs exclusively playing with glass and razor blades.

So when you get to a real research lab you are woefully undertrained to dispose of anything properly and almost certainly not really thinking too hard about it. You are too worried about your next experiment and overthinking which chair to sit in at the coffee break as last time you were ask to move and you didn’t know people had their specific spots and what if you end up next to the boss and what if they didn’t even drink coffee and prefer herbal tea should you try herbal tea too etc. etc.

But have no fear because this gap in teaching and training can always be well filled by good H&S documentation (for the purposes of the next part of this article lets just pretend everyone reads H&S documents, I realise this is a stretch but please go with me on this one). In UK, EU and US every chemical (and experiment) should have some accompanying documentation to tell you how to safely use it and very importantly how to safely dispose of it. For example here’s the waste disposal information for a tetragenic compound I used to work with.

“Wash down the sink with plenty of water”

Oh…

Maybe this one from a waste disposal section on an experimental sheet covering the distal of a toxic acid byproduct will be better

“Dispose of in an appropriate hazardous waste bin”

Right… well that’s nice and clear

This is now explaining why in that same lab some years earlier someone once thought that the neatly labeled (and separate) acid and oxide waste disposal bins were a suggestion and not a requirement. For non chemists the result sounded a lot like “FWoooosh”.

So what’s the answer? Well better training seems like a good place to start. For students clearing up needs to actually be part of the experimental protocol not something done by mysterious lab yetis. For already established researchers you can try to retain them (they are highly retraining resistant) but personally I think a naming and shaming approach works better. Every time the H&S inspector find something wrongly disposed of make them wear a badge that says “I’m such a bad researcher that I can’t even throw experiments away properly”

But whatever ever the solution this is something we all need to work at. Just for once I’d like to move into a new lab without having to get out the Geiger counter to check to see if there is any radiative isotopes that have been washed down the sink and got stuck in the U bend (also actually happened, hazmat team had to be called). That doesn’t seem like too much to ask.

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