Facility wastes no time in cleaning up
By Becky Zeiber
A young man in a white Tyvek suit and a respirator concentrates on pouring clear liquid into a 10-gallon waste bin. The cart next to him is filled with carefully-labeled containers, the ingredients for a chemical recipe he is blending. Small popping noises and white smoke emerge from the relatively safe confines of the flame hood.
Photo by Becky Zeiber
Mike Lauderdale (left), a technician for the Purdue Radiological and Environmental Management facility, and Adam Krajicek discuss how to blend chemicals for safe storage.
"Whoa," says another man, Adam Krajicek, standing at a safe distance from the technician. "We don't usually see a reaction like that." Instead of appearing nervous, Krajicek, a hazardous waste chemist for Purdue University's Radiological and Environmental Management (REM) facility, seems excited. Perhaps knowing that this reaction occurs won't hurt the technician is what keeps Krajicek interested in his job.
"I'm not in front of a computer all day, it's more of a blue-collar job," Krajicek said. "I couldn't sit in an office wearing a shirt and tie, I'd go crazy."
The blending room Krajicek and the technician are working in is just one of many in the REM facility. REM is where chemicals collected from Purdue's research laboratories are combined into fewer, large containers for bulk storage. Depending on the type of waste, the chemicals then go to different locations for disposal, Krajicek said. "We have to keep waste moving out or else it will build up," Krajicek said.
Purdue's research laboratories generate about 160,000 pounds of chemical waste each year - the same weight as about 32 mid-sized pickup trucks. The waste comes from all over campus, including a small portion from Purdue Agriculture operations, usually in the form of leftover pesticides. The majority of the waste REM handles is organic liquids, which are not usually hazardous if handled properly.
One class leads to career
By Becky Zeiber
Adam Krajicek, a hazardous waste chemist for Radiological and Environmental Management (REM), admits his position is an unusual career choice. But it was a natural choice, the 2002 Purdue natural resources and environmental sciences graduate said.
While he was a student, Krajicek took a class that allowed him to earn certification in hazardous waste operations, which is necessary for anyone who wants a career like his. Krajicek turned the class into an undergraduate work opportunity, and was able to travel around the University's campus collecting containers of chemicals from various research laboratories and responding to chemical spills.
"That was fun," Krajicek said. "As an undergraduate, you don't normally see the the research labs around campus. That experience allowed me to see lots of different buildings you don't normally see."
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Krajicek, a 2002 Purdue Agriculture alumnus with a degree in natural resources and environmental sciences, earned his hazardous waste certification from a class still offered at Purdue. The certification allows him to safely handle just about any chemical that comes through the REM facility. "It's a lot of variety," Krajicek said about his job. "You see a lot of different chemicals, small amounts of diverse wastes, and you can work hands-on with them."
REM collects chemicals from a variety of places at Purdue. Trent Sutton, an associate professor of fisheries biology, requests chemical waste pick ups from his fisheries laboratory throughout the year. "All our substrate and fish samples are placed in formalin," Sutton said.
Formalin is a preservative but is considered carcinogenic and should not be discarded in a sink drain. Once student researchers in Sutton's laboratory are finished with their samples, the leftover formalin is placed in 15-gallon containers and labeled carefully for REM to pick up and then blend together for bulk storage.
Behind each door in the main hallway of the REM facility lie a series of shelves that hold various chemicals collected from research laboratories around campus. Safety is key. For example, some of the waste products they handle, including picric acid used in the School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, are so explosive that they cannot be transported to the disposal site in dry form, Krajicek said. Special precautions are taken with these volatile compounds, and everything is meticulously labeled and handled very carefully.
Brian McDonald, the environmental protection specialist at REM, is part of a team that ensures Purdue produces is producing as little waste as possible. "I look at energy efficiency as waste minimization," McDonald said. "We will always generate some waste, but it doesn't have to be hazardous. If it's not hazardous waste, it can be used for something else, and that's kind of what we've done here," he said. "The hazardous waste landfill is the last place we want to send Purdue's waste."
McDonald said that the organic solvents that REM collects from Purdue's laboratories are reused instead of being disposed of in an incinerator or landfill. The solvents are placed in 55-gallon steel drums, taken to a cement kiln, and placed in holding tanks as an alternative energy source to make cement rather than using coal. "Eighty percent of the fuel used in that cement kiln is waste solvents generated throughout the Midwest," McDonald said. "This method of energy recovery is an efficient way to manage waste."
Emergency response to chemical spills is part of the job description for people like Krajicek and McDonald. If a student breaks a mercury thermometer in his first-year chemistry class, the REM staff is equipped to clean up and dispose of this hazardous waste very quickly.
But the REM team doesn't just react to problems. They also seek to reduce risks. For example, McDonald helped to write a small grant that gives money for a mercury thermometer exchange program. Since the program began in 2001, REM has exchanged 6,200 mercury thermometers and replaced them with less hazardous alcohol thermometers. McDonald said the chemistry department alone has eliminated 4,500 mercury thermometers in their laboratories.
"You have to be inventive," McDonald said. "If you use a different compound that's less expensive and less dangerous, it won't end up as hazardous waste. Less is more because it gives you more opportunities for waste disposal. Begin with the end result in mind."
McDonald added that Purdue has made a commitment to improve how they handle waste so that as little as possible ends up in a landfill, even if it costs a little more. "I got my conservation ethic from Purdue," McDonald said. "We focus on good stewardship first."