LabRATS: Best Practices—Chemicals


For over thirty years UCSB has made great progress in hazardous waste disposal and minimization, microchemistry in the classroom, and hazard protection. This website cannot begin to list all the best practices when using chemicals. Every laboratory using reagents on a regular basis needs a good text or manual on chemical management or minimizing, such as “Pollution Prevention and Waste Minimization in Laboratories, 1995. Reinhardt, et al. CRC Press.” See also EH&S guidelines for waste minimizing.

Donate surplus chemicals to colleagues or through departmental listserve

Problem: Unused chemicals are being labeled as waste when labs are done using them.

Solution: If you know of a nearby lab that uses that chemical, offer it to them free of charge. If not, departmental listserves are another easy way to offer up unused chemicals. Moreover the same people that pick up your waste will pick up chemicals to be re-distributed. Alternatively, you could donate your unused chemicals to the Chemical Exchange Program.

Cost: Unlike waste, unused chemicals cannot be mixed with other similar chemicals. Also the integrity of the chemicals needs to be uncompromised. There is no monetary incentive for donating unused chemicals.
Benefits: Donating chemicals is a good way for labs to network and increase communication between groups. This can enable future exchanges in equipment, chemicals, or even research techniques. Savings for recipients are immediate.

Request free chemicals

Request free chemicals

This program is only able to receive from and deliver chemicals to UCSB laboratories. This program cannot deliver chemicals to any other schools, colleges, universities or other non-UCSB entities. If you are interested in starting a similar program at your institution, please contact and we would be happy to share our experiences and advice.

Minimize Chemical Use

Problem: You work in a bio-chem lab and you use lots of chemicals that are harmful to the environment.

Seek ways to minimize chemical use, such as mini-scintillation vials, or use non-toxic alternatives.

Photo: Chemical containers
Solution: Mini-scintillation vials have the volume and do the same job as regular vials. Also MIT has green chemistry alternative wizard that gives alternative chemicals and processes that are less harmful to the environment.
Cost: Alternative chemicals and processes may be unfamiliar to lab occupants.
Benefit: Costs may immediately decrease. Chemical use decreases with smaller vials saving the lab money as well as avoiding having to dispose of excess chemicals. Reduced resources and energy for manufacturing chemicals.

Exchange mercury thermometers for spirit thermometers

Problem: Mercury thermometers, barometers and gauges can break spilling mercury costing time and money for the lab to get cleaned up. A recent barometer spill took 16 staff hours to clean up.

Request free chemicals
Learn more about alternatives to mercury thermometers
Learn more information about the benefits of switching to alcohol based thermometers

Photo: Mercury thermometers
Solution: Please fill out a Mercury Thermometer exchange form and EH&S will pick up your mercury thermometer and replace it with a harmless spirit one for free. Other apparatus gladly picked up.
Cost: Free. Spirit thermometers are not as accurate as mercury ones (but not by much)
Benefit: Save EH&S hours of clean up time and materials for broken mercury thermometers. Savings estimated at $60 per broken thermometer (2006).

Avoid use of unprotected metallic lead when possible

Problem: Many electronics components are made with lead which when disposed of can poison local water tables.

Solution: Whenever possible buy RoHS compliant electronics and electrical equipment. RoHS compliant materials are free of Lead, Mercury, Cadmium, Hexavalent chromium, PBB, and PBDE. When using products with metallic lead make sure it is oxidation protected.
Cost: While not very common, non-lead alternatives have been recorded to have reliability issues regarding thin strands of metal that can grow and make contact with adjacent parts causing short circuits.

Benefit: Toxic heavy metals are less likely to leech into local water supplies from landfills if they have a oxidation protective layer. Currently the physics store room only offers RoHS compliant electronics.

Washing glassware with minimum solvent rinsing

Problem: A) You want to rinse out organic residues from glassware and are using a lot of solvents. B) Some tarry residues may be very difficult to rinse out

Solution: A) Use a squirt bottle with the smallest practical tip opening, and use multiple rinses. Second rinses may be poured into unrinsed glassware to get double use from the solvent. B) Combusting the glassware in a furnace at 450-500 C will eliminate the residues with no solvents or labor. Run a full load for greatest efficiency, perhaps on a given day of the week.
Cost: A) A little extra time may be needed. B) None if muffle furnace is available. Electricity will be needed to run the furnace.

Benefit: Reducing solvents eliminates the energy and resources needed for their manufacture and air emissions.

Solvent purification: on-site distillation vs. pre-purified canisters

Problem: A) Solvents of very high purity (e.g. moisture or oxygen free) are needed in organic chemistry research and they cannot be easily purchased or poured from open bottles. Dedicated stills occupy hood space and can be hazardous.

Solution: Purchasing purified canisters of solvents with purging and scrubbing dispensers.
Cost: The start-up costs can be more expensive than distillation and annual costs are about $1,000 per solvent greater as well. See our in-depth cost comparison.
Benefit: There may be some labor savings and safety improvements are invaluable. Gaining hood space is also precious. This eliminates need for cooling water which can amount to tens of thousands of liters every year.

Avoid halogenated reagents if possible

Problem: Halogenated organics in the environment are persistent including dioxin, DDT and CFCs. These compounds have contaminated water supplies and destroyed parts of the ozone.

Solution: Research “green chemistry” to find methods that may avoid halogens. Visit the MIT green chemistry website for alternates.

Cost: There will be investigation time needed to find alternate methods.
Benefit: Avoiding halogens reduces persistent toxic chemical buildup.

Alternate methods to wet chemical spectroscopy

Problem: Manual wet chemistry methods are slow and use a lot of reagents, creating a lot of waste. Automated continuous flow analyzers (CFA) methods are fast, and still generate dozens to hundreds of gallons per year of hazardous waste, they are expensive ($30,000-80,000), and they require a dedicated staff to operate and troubleshoot.

Solution 1: There are two alternate technologies that may be faster or simpler, and use less chemicals. Discuss with partner labs or colleagues. Discrete analyzers have become highly automated and are flexible for a variety of analyses. They can be sensitive down to micromolar concentrations. Many large labs with high throughput are switching over to these machines.

Benefits: Higher sample productivity, low waste volume.
Costs: Also very expensive, depending on the model. Requires expert operation and maintenance.

Solution 2: Batch chemistry in 96-well microtiter plates read on an absorbance plate reader.
Benefits: Very small chemical usage; plate readers are often available as a department resource. There are many methods developed to convert from CFA to microplate methods. The instrument and methods are easy to use and suitable for unsupervised undergraduates.
Costs: Absorbance plate costs balance out reduced chemical costs, There is some development time, detection limits may not be as low as CFA methods. Filters may need to be purchased for each method.

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