Avoid Pouring Chemicals–and Your Reputation–Down the Drain

Dear Dora,

Everyone in my new lab pours all sorts of solvents down the drain and says it’s ok because they flush with a lot of water. I’m a first-year graduate student so maybe this is how all labs work, but it seems crazy. Is there a way for me to bring this issue up without being the annoying newbie?

– anonymous, first year graduate student


Dear Anonymous Graduate Student,

You are right to be concerned about others pouring solvents down the drain. Besides being an environmental hazard, your university can get fined thousands of dollars by the environmental agencies. Some labs even get shut down for improper disposal of lab waste.

It is true that some chemicals can be poured down the sink if you flush it down with plenty of water. If you know which chemicals are used, I recommend doing a quick internet search to determine if they are being disposed of properly (this will save you embarrassment when you bring up the issue). If you have a reasonable suspicion that there is improper disposal, you can bring it up politely, with the responsible person first. You can be polite such as “Are you sure this is the right way to dispose of XYZ?” If he/she dismisses your comment, then the most politically correct solution would be to bring it up with your PI (without any names). He/she might recommend a group meeting where you review proper chemical waste management, or call someone from the university to give a training (these are done on a yearly basis anyway).

Keep in mind that if you bring it up with your supervisor, he/she might give you the responsibility of being the lab safety officer. However, as a first your student this could be a good opportunity for you to learn more about the chemicals used in your field. In addition, your supervisor will view you as someone with initiative and leadership skills, and have more respect for you.

Do you think labs are becoming more environmentally conscious with respect to pouring chemicals down the drain?

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Dora Farkas, Ph.D. is the author “The Smart Way to Your Ph.D.:200 Secrets from 100 Graduates,” and the founder of PhDNet, an online community for graduate students and PhDs. You will find links to her book, monthly newsletters, and discussion board on her site. Send your questions to [email protected] and keep an eye out for them in an upcoming issue!

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1 comment so far.

  1. Mitch

    wrote on December 20, 2013 at 8:05 am

    Rather than bugging lab mates by asking them whether or not they are doing things correctly (which would likely be viewed as arrogant and condescending by some), I'd suggest checking the uni website for documents on chem disposal. At my institution, hazardous chems go unto separate plastic bottles (old reagent bottles) and the Environmental Safety Office comes around and takes them. If it's the same where you are, you could just label some bottles with the waste chemical name(s) and mention in passing that you put out some waste bottles and that you'll take care of them when full (sorry, if you want to maintain cordial relationships, adding to your labmates' lists of responsibilities won't help – you'll probably have to take on the burden yourself at least until your labmates get used to the new disposal system). Godspeed and good luck.

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