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How Do You Dispose of Organic Solvents?

April 6, 2021

Organic solvents are an integral part of paints, varnishes, inks, and dyes. They also show up in glues and lacquers; and they have a starring role in the production of agricultural, pharmaceutical, and textile products. And don’t forget PLASTICS—say it with me, Ben.

Ergo, if yours is an industrial or manufacturing enterprise—big or small—there’s an excellent chance that you have organic solvents onsite that require hazardous waste removal, be they virgin or spent. 

So what is an organic solvent, anyway?

First things first. A solvent is a substance that dissolves a solute to form a solution. Water is the best example. In fact, it’s the most common solvent on the face of the earth. A solute, on the other hand, is the substance that’s getting dissolved. Sugar is the solute when you’re making a solution of simple syrup, wherein:

Water + Sugar = Simple Syrup

(Okay, we promise no more math or chemistry.)

Organic solvents are called that because they’re carbon-based. Interestingly enough, even though it makes up 60 percent of the human body, water isn’t an organic solvent, because it’s carbon free. This is probably lucky, otherwise someone in California would want to pass a law against water. And maybe for good reason. Consider:  

As useful as they might be, organic solvents nonetheless can be carcinogens, reproductive hazards, and/or neurotoxins. This does not endear them to OSHA, the EPA, the DOT, or a gaggle of other state and local bureaucracies that have a vested interest in hazardous waste disposal. Some members of this chemical Rogue’s Gallery include:

Carcinogenic organic solvents requiring hazardous waste removal

  • Benzene is a natural constituent of crude oil. Mainly used as an industrial chemical, it’s an “aromatic hydrocarbon” that gives gasoline its unique smell. (In fact, they put benzina in their Alfa Romeos in Italy.) Unfortunately, benzina is also a notorious cause of bone marrow failure.
  • Carbon tetrachloride goes by many names. E.g. “carbon tet” at your local dry-cleaning emporium; Halon-104 at the fire station; and Refrigerant-10 in the fascinating world of HVAC. High concentrations can affect your CNS, liver, and kidneys. Prolonged exposure can be fatal.
  • Trichloroethylene was invented during the mid-1950s and simultaneously used as an anesthetic, coffee decaffeinater, and rocket fuel—undoubtedly raising some eyebrows. Nowadays its used only as an industrial solvent, as it’s been proven to produce liver cancer in mice, kidney cancer in rats, and steady income for lawyers. 

Organic solvents that are reproductive hazards and require hazardous waste removal

Organic solvents that are neurotoxins and require hazardous waste removal

  • n-hexane is an inexpensive, largely unreactive, and easily-evaporated solvent that, while relatively safe, has nonetheless been implicated in peripheral neuropathy and neurotoxicity in workers. It’s a major constituent of gasoline; and hanging around the gas pump too long will make you feel tired, drowsy, and sorta tingly. 
  • Tetrachloroethylene  is a colorless liquid that’s hard to spell and widely used for dry cleaning, which is why most people call it “dry-cleaning fluid.”  The International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified it as a Group 2A carcinogen, which means it’s only probably carcinogenic.
  • Touluene might sound like the name of a small Midwest city, but it’s actually the solvent in some paint thinners, permanent markers, contact cement, and glue. Some people use it as a recreational inhalant: an eminently bad idea since it’s been shown to be an NMDA receptor antagonist, meaning it messes with your nerve functioning.

The need for organic solvent disposal

As you might guess, the EPA takes a very dim view of discharging organic solvents down the drain and into the municipal sewer. So do its state & local cohorts. And they don’t care if the solvent is miscible vs. non-miscible with water; or flammable vs. inflammable. It can’t go down the drain unless you want Big Trouble.

Instead, organic solvents require strict hazardous waste management. They must be placed in suitable containers that are tightly-capped, properly labeled with red hazmat tags, and designed so that no vapors or liquid might escape. Knowing how to do this properly takes expert advice.

Combinations of organic solvents can be placed in the same container, but only if they’re nonreactive with one another, and the container must be labeled with the relative proportions of each solvent. This is because reactive chemicals tend to explode when they get close & personal with one another, which will definitely draw the disapproving attention of your local OSHA operatives.

Transportation of organic solvents

You must ensure that spent or unwanted chemical solvents are transported to the correct category of waste disposal facility. The transporter must be legally “permitted” to do so. Likewise, the facility must be “permitted” to accept them. 

Making sure that these exigencies are met is solely on your head. You’re responsible for a hazardous waste “from cradle to grave” in EPA parlance, which means that selecting a transportation and/or treatment company that meets EPA muster is your legal obligation. 

Don’t take chances. Get expert advice.

The nuances of hazardous waste management—especially in the realm of organic solvent disposal—require diligence on your part and that of your employees. You need an onsite protocol for handling organic solvents. You can’t allow individual employees to be making ad hoc decisions about what to do with a chemical waste when it presents itself.

Once you’ve developed such a protocol—and ensure everyone’s trained about it—it’s much less likely that expensive mistakes will be made: the kind that might be litigable or even criminal. 

As in all things involving the EPA—not to mention OSHA and a raft of state and local agencies—expert advice is crucial.  And the best is available right here.

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