Cleaner and greener: reducing waste at Fermilab

Purchasing chemicals with an eye toward reduction can help avoid a needless accumulation of chemicals. The Hazard Control Technology Team in ESH&Q is urging Fermilab employees to inspect their chemical inventories for excess inventory. Photo courtesy of David Hockin, ESH&Q

Regardless of which listing of environmental liabilities you look at, waste in its various forms is always near the top. Part of the reason for this is that waste contributes to many other issues. Many chemicals contain volatile components that contribute to ozone depletion or climate change if they are not managed correctly. Poorly managed excess chemicals can escape and create water and air pollution, eventually leading to a decrease in habitat quality and ecosystem degradation.

Reducing or eliminating waste has always been a hallmark of sustainability efforts. In DOE, the phrase “waste minimization and pollution prevention” has attained meme status and is often shortened to “waste min,” “P2” or WMPP. Federal statutes such as the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and the Pollution Prevention Act emphasize minimizing waste and preventing pollution whenever possible.

Although it sounds like these are two different things, they are so similar that it is useful to think of them as one concept. The key is source reduction. If we can reduce the amounts of materials we use or keep on hand, we’re likely to reduce the amount of material that is wasted.

One way to do that is to plan purchases carefully so as not to build up wasteful inventories of excess — unneeded stuff. Although the unit cost of things often goes down as the total amount purchased goes up, if you eventually have to pay to dispose of the excess as (potentially hazardous) waste, those minimal savings can easily be wiped out.

The Hazard Control Technology Team in ESH&Q is urging Fermilab employees to look into their chemical inventories and clean out unnecessary items. Since August of this year, they have safely cleaned out and disposed of 555 individual containers of excess materials totaling 275 gallons. The average size is less than a half-gallon per container, so it isn’t limited to large amounts. More cleanups are scheduled in the future.

Recently, during one of the cleanups, PPD discovered a 5-gallon can of a chemical that forms potentially explosive shock-sensitive peroxides. The chemical had been sitting unused in a cabinet since 2005 and appeared not to have been opened. Because of the potentially dangerous nature of the chemical, a hazardous waste company had to be called to render the material safe for disposal at a cost of nearly $4,000.

Adopting a program of carefully planning purchases, managing all materials including chemicals and promptly disposing of unnecessary materials and chemicals will help to protect the environment, keep the workplace safe and save money.

Rod Walton