U works hard to protect environment

By Fay

“How does the University affect Minnesota’s natural environment?” A response to this question must consider the fate of the wide variety of chemicals used in research, teaching, clinical and maintenance activities carried out by tens of thousands of students, staff and faculty members on our University campuses.
To protect the environment from being harmed by these chemicals, the University operates a very large — and generally successful — chemical waste management program. The Department of Environmental Health and Safety has oversight responsibility for the program, but every individual who handles chemicals has a personal responsibility to assure that waste chemicals do not enter the environment.
Chemicals of various types are used in virtually all of the University’s 2,500 laboratories, in its many clinics, in its art departments, print shops, photography studios, and in a variety of maintenance activities (cleaning, painting, servicing, refurbishing) that keep the institution functioning properly. And there are other materials that contain chemicals of concern, including some aerosol cans, batteries of all types and fluorescent light bulbs. Handling all of this material when it becomes waste is a challenge indeed.
For many years, the major emphasis of the University’s chemical waste management program was to collect all chemical waste so that it would not go down the drain into sewers or into the trash and then to landfills. There are many procedures in place to facilitate these efforts, and there is a staff of people who collect waste from each location in which it is generated. Thousands of employees who handle chemicals take the time to properly label, contain and segregate their wastes, following regulations designed to control chemical disposal. This process is elaborate, time consuming and costly, but has been successful in keeping chemical waste from entering the environment.
Beginning in the late 1980s, however, the emphasis changed dramatically from simply collecting waste to actually reducing the amount of waste generated. It is a simple concept: waste that is not generated doesn’t have to be managed. The concept is known as pollution prevention, source reduction, waste abatement, waste reduction or waste minimization; the name really doesn’t matter, as long as the amount of waste is reduced.
The University waste minimization effort is respected throughout the country as one of the most successful programs at academic institutions. Many different techniques have been used to either reduce the quantity of waste coming from a process or reduce the toxicity or hazardous characteristic of the waste. The result is not only less waste to be disposed of at the end of a process, but less raw material to be purchased at the beginning. A few examples will suffice to show the types of changes that can be implemented to minimize waste.
Several years ago Professor Kent Mann revised all of the general chemistry laboratory experiments so that they would not generate hazardous waste. This required substituting non-hazardous for hazardous chemicals and, in some cases, significantly reducing the quantity of a chemical used in an experiment (microscale chemistry). Mann’s work reduced University waste generation by more than 13,000 pounds a year; his experimental procedures have been adopted by many institutions around the country.
The Department of Environmental Health and Safety maintains a computerized inventory of excess chemicals that allows unneeded chemicals from one laboratory to be requested by another. The chemicals are delivered free of charge to the laboratories that can make use of them. Approximately 2,500 pounds of chemicals are redistributed each year, saving the University an estimated $44,000 annually in avoided purchase and disposal costs. This program, along with Mann’s work, received the 1993 Governor’s Award for Excellence in Pollution Prevention. In addition to the exchange program, the University has many environmental success stories.
ù The University’s Printing Services uses agri-based inks for much of its work. Agri-based inks can be cleaned from presses with water, reducing considerably the amount of ink-contaminated organic solvent waste that is produced by the printing process.
ù University Stores has been proactive in locating non-hazardous substitutes for products that contain hazardous chemicals, e.g., replacing mercury thermometers with a non-mercury version. The Stores catalog also lists many items that are made of recycled materials.
ù Collection containers for large volume, low hazard recyclable materials are conveniently located throughout the campuses. Facilities Management collects well over 1,000 tons of newspaper, office paper, aluminum cans, and plastic and glass bottles each year and sends them to be recycled.
ù Some of the residential food services are collecting food waste, rather than putting it in the sewer. The food waste is used for feeding animals and water usage is greatly reduced by not running the garbage disposals.
These examples show that much is being done at the University to minimize our impact on the natural environment. However, there is considerable room for improvement. Recyclable materials still find their way into the normal trash, some departments are not yet collecting old batteries and regulatory agencies frequently find mislabelled and poorly segregated containers of hazardous waste when they inspect our campuses.
What is needed most is an individual commitment from all members of the University community. They should be continually aware of the materials they handle and should choose an environmentally protective option for managing the material when it becomes waste. Or even better — they should devise a method for not producing the waste in the first place. The University’s Waste Abatement Committee, chaired by Dee McManus of University Services, is always looking for new ways to reduce waste on campus and would be pleased to receive suggestions.
Let’s ask the question differently. “Are we protecting Minnesota’s natural environment?” Yes, we are. “Can we do better?” Certainly. Focusing on waste reduction will improve our performance.
Professor Fay Thompson is director of the Department of Environmental Health and Safety. More information on chemical waste management can be found on the department’s home page, at http://www.dehs.umn.edu.