Safe handling of hazardous wastes is no small matter, especially for laboratories and research groups. Some lab wastes are flammable, some are corrosive, and others are reactive or toxic. Regardless of their characterization, they all possess one common trait: their danger to human and environmental health.
Because the basics of hazardous waste management require detailed documentation and training, laboratories can feel overwhelming when various chemicals must be packed and labeled accordingly. Therefore, the idea of creating a safe and compliant system to dispose of different chemical wastes can be daunting. Luckily, lab-pack guidelines exist to protect anyone who may come in contact with these chemicals.
What is a lab-pack?
Lab-packing is a safe, reliable, and compliant system designed to assist in the management, transportation, and disposal of hazardous wastes generated in laboratories and research groups.
Typical lab-packs consist of 4 basic steps:
- Segregating the chemicals based on their hazardous characteristics
- Packing the grouped wastes with DOT (Department of Transportation) compliant supplies
- Filling the empty space in the drum with compatible packing material (often Vermiculite) and sealing the drum
- Labeling the drum for safe shipment and proper treatment or disposal
A similar process, known as “overpacking,” occurs when a damaged drum is placed inside a larger drum to prevent or contain any release.
Why are lab-packs necessary?
While lab-packing provides a simplified method to group and transport wastes, it also ensures one of the most important aspects of dealing with hazardous waste: safety. Classifying and handling hazardous wastes can be dangerous, which is why following lab-pack regulations are critical. Take the time to review these regulations to protect yourself and our environment.
The EPA separates hazardous waste into 2 main divisions, listed vs. characteristic:
The F and K lists are non-specific (F) and specific (K) waste streams that are common to many different industries and manufacturers. Examples of “F” wastes would be spent solvents or electroplating solutions, while examples of “K” wastes would include those originating from wood preservation or pesticide manufacturing.
The P and U lists concern themselves with pure formulations of individual, unused chemicals. This becomes especially relevant when labs are closing their doors or purging expired inventory, as many common laboratory chemicals appear on one of these two lists.
If waste possesses certain characteristics outlined by the EPA, it can also be considered hazardous even if not specified in any of the above-mentioned lists. The 4 general characteristics that make waste hazardous are:
- Ignitability – Acetone, ethyl acetate, acetonitrile, isopropanol, methanol, diethyl ether
- Corrosivity – Acetic acid, formic acid, hydrochloric acid, sulfuric acid, sodium hydroxide, ammonium hydroxide
- Reactivity – Hydrogen peroxide, nitric acid, tetranitromethane, azides
- Toxicity – Chemicals that are harmful when ingested or absorbed
By utilizing these characteristics, it can be noted that most (if not all) laboratory chemicals will be considered hazardous, whether they are classified through the listed or characteristic methods. For an inexperienced or untrained person, the complexity of characterization increases the possibility of dangerous scenarios.
One example of a dangerous scenario would be an inexperienced person not knowing that acids and bases should not be stored nor packed in the same container, due to their thermal and violent reactions when interacting. Some more complex, but still plausible examples of dangers that can arise during lab-packs include the following:
The laboratory manager of a closing pharmaceutical startup decides to lab-pack their own drums before disposal, in hopes of lowering the overall cost. Towards the end of the lab-pack, the lab manager notices a glass bottle of table salt (NaCl) sitting in the corner of one of the shelves. Since they think of NaCl as innocuous, they decide to place it in one of the remaining open drums containing 2L bottles of sulfuric acid (H2SO4). They close the drums, label them, prepare the paperwork, and coordinate with a transportation company for pickup.
During transport, the driver hits a tall speed bump, causing the bottles to jostle and crack each other open. As the sulfuric acid reacts with the table salt, it creates hydrochloric acid gas which fills up the drum. The pressure causes the drum to rupture, spewing hydrogen chloride (HCl) gas and sulfuric acid (H2SO4) into the trailer, harming the driver once he opens the doors to unload the waste.
Chemistry is complicated, and scenarios like these are completely avoidable. A thorough understanding of reaction trends, compatibility matrices, and chemical classes are integral parts of a compliant lab-pack. By employing the help of trained and experienced field technicians and chemists, you can have peace of mind knowing your waste will be handled safely and correctly.