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November 14, 2006
Where Do All The Chemicals Go?
When a bunch of chemistry projects suddenly stop in their tracks, you're faced with a real waste disposal problem. What do you do with all the blasted chemicals? First off, there are reactions going in people's fume hoods, some of which probably aren't going to be worked up. Into the red waste can they go. Then there are all the opened bottles of solvent, which aren't going to be shipped off anywhere like that. Unless there's a local university that's not very picky, those are going to end up hauled off for waste, too. (I wouldn't trust a solvent bottle that someone unknown to me has opened and left around, personally, especially if I have no way of tracking down its previous owner).
Solid commercial reagents are a bit different, since they're generally more stable and less likely to be contaminated (and often easier to spot if they've gone bad). Everything unopened - and every lab has plenty of unopened stuff in it, for one reason or another - will either be moved to the sites that are still running, or have several chances at donation or sale before being treated as waste. Opened commercial reagents will be subject to the same calculations, but on a steeper curve. Is the stuff still commercially available? Do the folks on the other end have enough of it already? If no, is anyone likely to want it? Is it worth shipping a long distance? Any "no" answers send the bottle to the "donate" pile, and that much closer to a waste pickup.
My guess is that very few of the commercial reagents will stay within the company. Compounds and intermediates that were made in-house, though, will get much more deferential treatment. These are almost certainly not commercially available, and have (be definition) been used to make something that was thought to have some value and to have some chance of being proprietary. Everything in this category will probably make the cut for being shipped, unless it's obviously turned to black tar on storage.
The mother lode of these compounds is, of course, the repository. Every drug company has one, full of racks and rows of vials and small bottles, every one of them containing something that someone thought was worth making and worth testing. Some of these have been dissolved in small quantities of DMSO, for liquid handling machines to dispense them, and these may or may not be worthwhile. But all the stock solids will be carefully packed and shipped off, no questions asked. They represent a huge investment in man-hours and money. Tossing them would be like a coal company setting its mines on fire.
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