SAFETY FIRST: Environmental health exceeds sustainability goals for chemical waste disposal


The University of Pittsburgh has made sustainability and recycling one of its top priorities, and the Department of Environmental Health and Safety is no different.

EH&S works to lessen the impact of proper chemical waste disposal on the environment, striving each year toward a goal of recycling, re-using or re-purposing 60 percent of the University’s chemical waste. In 2022, EH&S exceeded that mark and reached 70 percent

“Waste materials that could be incinerated are redirected, if possible, to a fuels blending or a waste-to-energy disposal technology, which are both more beneficial from an environmental standpoint,” said Keith Duval, the EH&S associate director for environmental programs and a certified hazardous materials manager. “Many waste disposal companies focus on ‘feeding’ large volumes of waste to their incinerator; we always ask, ‘What are our more environmentally friendly disposal/treatment options?’”

Unfortunately, due to the toxicity and hazardous properties of some waste chemicals, not all waste can be re-used, repurposed or recycled, making incineration inevitable. However, generators of waste hoping to be better stewards of the environment look to avoid landfills and incineration as much as possible. Instead, they look for other options, such as fuels-blending or waste-to-energy alternatives. 

Fuels blending involves taking high-BTU solvents such as methanol and acetone and using the recovered thermal energy to fuel cement kilns and help conserve fossil fuels. In the waste-to-energy process, waste is diverted from landfills to generate energy from the combustion process. While there are limited opportunities for true recycling, many oils and batteries generated here on campus are recycled.

Duval, who has worked at Pitt for 24 years, said EH&S works closely with its partners to ensure its waste disposal goals are met.

“We’ve always looked at environmentally friendly disposal/treatment options,” Duval said. “We were well ahead of that as far as our disposal/treatment methods. We’ve had many contractors propose various incineration rate schedules, but we’d always ask the suppliers, ‘what other disposal/treatment options are available? What can you do aside from incineration? What green technology or value-added services can you offer?’ I always thought we were well ahead of the curve with our thinking. A 60 percent goal in an academic setting is rather aggressive, and we have been able to achieve that goal in the past.”

In 2022, 34 percent of the chemical waste generated at Pitt was processed via waste-to-energy, 29 percent was fuels blended, and 6 percent was recycled. 

“Diverting 70 percent of the University’s chemical waste from landfill in calendar year 2022 is a new and amazing achievement, in line with our Pitt Sustainability Plan goal to reduce campus-wide landfill waste 25 percent by 2030 (from 2017 levels),” said Aurora Sharrard, Pitt’s executive director of sustainability.  “It’s exciting when partners like EH&S across campus wholeheartedly embrace sustainability, applying their expertise to helping embed more sustainable solutions not just in their own departmental efforts, but in the outcomes of laboratories campus-wide.”

Pitt generates a variety of chemical waste streams, and EH&S currently partners with Veolia North America to handle the University’s disposal needs.

“Veolia has put a considerable amount of thought and effort into providing the University with sustainable and more beneficial disposal alternatives,” Duval said. “During the pandemic the University approached Veolia regarding recycling options for used, uncontaminated laboratory gloves. Veolia provided a waste-to-energy solution that keeps the used gloves from entering landfills. Veolia and Pitt EH&S work collaboratively to develop solutions that align with the University’s sustainability mission.”

Jonathan Lundy, a hazardous materials specialist for EH&S and, like Duval, a certified hazardous materials manager, said waste disposal companies “are consistently researching opportunities to recycle” as more emphasis is placed on sustainability.

“I think that a lot of folks are starting to realize that there are lasting, harmful consequences to our world resulting from human industrialization,” said Lundy, who has worked at Pitt for 18 years. “People are accepting the fact that changes need to be made globally to keep life sustainable here for their kids.”

In his 24 years at Pitt, Duval said mindsets have changed on campus, with more and more people adopting attitudes that align with the EH&S sustainable and conservative waste management approach.

“It’s been a drastic change,” he said. “When I first started at EH&S, I would go into a lab and find bottles of chemicals that were older than what I was at the time. I recall seeing a couple of chemicals that were over 35 years old. The ‘chemical hoarding’ mindset has changed over the years. Investigators and lab staff review their chemical inventory annually and dispose of materials as appropriate. Those days of routinely running into the scenario of opening a storage cabinet and finding old, deteriorated, rusted and nasty looking containers are long gone for the most part.”

Better and more sustainable methods for chemical waste disposal are important, given the sheer scope of chemical waste produced by the University. In addition to the research waste generated by the University, Duval said waste materials also are produced by “the various shops at the Melwood Maintenance Building, the Department of Studio Arts, and the on-campus machine shops. Old paint, thinner, and unwanted maintenance chemicals are generated by the University trades and the Department of Studio Arts, while oils and gas generated from Grounds Department operations are all managed and processed through the EH&S chemical waste program.”

Sometimes, the sources of the waste can also be surprising, Duval said.

“The School of Dental Medicine generates old amalgam wastes, which need to be handled properly,” he said.  “People don’t even think about the various points of waste generation throughout campus. Overall, the scope is pretty enormous. It’s campus-wide and includes regional campuses and many ‘off campus’ Pitt locations.”

Samantha Chan, the assistant director of sustainability and co-chair of Pitt’s Sustainable Laboratories Committee, said EH&S is one example of how an individual department can make a conscientious effort to advance sustainability at Pitt.

“EH&S efforts showcase how every department is instrumental in building a thriving culture of sustainability at Pitt,” she said. “As active members of the new Sustainable Laboratories Committee, EH&S helps advance sustainability in laboratories and research practices across campus, including those advancing sustainability in their spheres of influence by becoming designated Pitt Green Labs.”   

Of course, responsible waste disposal begins with you — the student, faculty or staff member. EH&S reminds everyone to label their chemicals properly and educates the University community on how to dispose of specialty wastes the right way.

“Things like oil and antifreeze do not meet the definition of hazardous waste, but there are still environmental concerns associated with these materials. EH&S ensures that these materials are managed appropriately and disposed of in an environmentally responsible manner,” said Duval. 

“Many chemicals may not be regulated as hazardous waste, but if these chemicals enter the wastewater system, they may be toxic to aquatic organisms. EH&S is an advocate for not disposing of chemical related materials down the drain, or in the general trash stream. EH&S is responsible for evaluating waste streams, and then making the appropriate waste determination.”

To help promote and ensure responsible disposal, EH&S — rather than the individual schools or departments — is responsible for the costs associated with the University’s chemical waste program.

“Over 25 years ago, EH&S decided that we wouldn’t bill back to the departments,” Duval said.  “In my experience, when EH&S departments at other Universities started billing back, the waste generation volumes started to decrease. The reason being: waste generators begin to hold onto the waste because they didn’t want to be responsible for disposal costs.  Since EH&S is responsible for the disposal costs here at Pitt, generators of wastes can be assured that materials are being disposed of properly, and there is no need to hold on to unwanted materials due to the associated disposal costs.

Anthony Conroy is a communication specialist with the Office of Public Safety & Emergency Management.