Labs, pharmacies, hospitals, healthcare providers, and even households use a variety of chemical-based products that generate hazardous chemical waste. How should you dispose of empty chemical containers is governed by environmental laws that strictly regulate the disposal of such containers. The residue within empty chemical containers can pose a threat as hazardous waste if not treated properly. Disposing of containers without treating them first could allow chemical runoff to mix with groundwater, seep through soil, and eventually get consumed, harming humans and wildlife.
Preventing such outcomes begins with knowing how to manage the chemicals carefully and make all efforts to reduce the amount of chemical waste you or company, institution or household produces. If possible, reuse or recycle chemicals and chemical containers first. If not possible, they need to be disposed of properly.
How Do I Know if a Container is “Empty”?
An empty chemical container is, by EPA definition, one in which all the liquid or materials has been removed through normal mean of emptying a container via “pouring, pumping or aspirating.” Liquid containers must not have one last drop in them. Containers which have held solid and semi-solid hazardous material are only considered empty if any residual content cannot be removed by scraping or chipping.
What to Do With Empty Chemical Containers
One of the best uses for empty chemical containers is to reuse whenever it is possible or appropriate. Old containers can be used for water storage collection or to dispose of spill residue. These containers should not be used for any radioactive waste storage or disposal. Be sure that the container you reuse is compatible with the hazardous waste or other chemicals you are storing. Reusing an empty container requires its cleaning before storing hazardous waste and other chemicals in it. Containers that have not been thoroughly cleaned of its chemical residue could cause a combustible chemical reaction. Finally, all original labels and markings need to be removed from the container and replaced with labels that clearly display the current contents of the container.
You should refer to your community’s or institution’s guidelines for the correct way to recycle empty chemical containers. That will depend on the chemical that was in the container. Empty chemical containers should not just be thrown into common recycling bins. Toxic residue can be very harmful to staff and workers who handle them at pickup or at waste disposal sites as well have serious environmental consequences. Common household containers for items like motor oil, antifreeze, lawn pesticides, nail polish, and drain cleaners need to be treated and marked before recycling. Some glass, metal, and plastic containers can be recycled. Make sure that these containers are completely empty and dry, with no chemical residue, have the labels and caps removed. Remove labels and mark the containers as empty. Containers for volatile organic solvents like acetone, petroleum ether, ethanol, methanol, and the like can be air-dried in a ventilated area (in a lab it should be done under a chemical fume hood) before recycling.
Not all empty chemical containers can be reused or recycled. Still, they do need to be disposed of following EPA regulations, as well as local or institutional guidelines. The containers should be cleaned three times with a compatible solvent and with the rinse liquid being stored in a reusable container. Allow the containers to air dry (under a chemical fume hood if inside). Once cleaned and dried, permanently remove labels and all indicators or warning signs such as “flammable” or “hazardous” and write “Empty” on the containers. Remove the caps or seals and place of the container in the designated community or institutional disposal area.
It’s important to that all empty chemical containers are cleaned following specific guidelines and procedures as defined by regulations and laws. Whether you reuse, recycle or dispose of the container depends on its original content. Knowing what to do with the empty container is the first step in preventing any harmful residue from being dumped or disposed of improperly.