Chemicals sit on a lab table as gloved hands pipette red liquid from one of the bottles
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Meet the people who handle the toughest trash on campus

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When most people think about recycling, they think cans, bottles and plastic. But at an institution as large and varied as Pitt, there’s much more to consider.

Artists work with oil-based paint in the Frick Fine Arts Building. Mechanics drain antifreeze from University-owned vans. And dentists are hard at work swapping old fillings for new. What each of those activities has in common is a need for safe disposal and recycling of chemicals.

That’s where the University’s Department of Environmental Health and Safety (EH&S) comes into play.

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

“Diverting 70% 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 campuswide landfill waste 25% from 2017 levels by 2030,” 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 campuswide.”

Waste watchers

Sometimes, the sources of campus waste can be surprising.

“The School of Dental Medicine generates old amalgam wastes, which need to be handled properly,” said Keith Duval, the EH&S environmental manager and a certified hazardous materials manager. “People don’t even think about the various points of waste generation throughout campus. Overall, the scope is pretty enormous. It’s campuswide and includes regional campuses and many off-campus Pitt locations.”

Additionally, while materials like oil and antifreeze are not technically hazardous waste, there are still environmental concerns associated with them. EH&S makes sure these materials are managed appropriately and disposed of in an environmentally responsible manner, said Duval. 

“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.”

When there’s a chemical Pitt can’t handle, EH&S partners with Veolia North America to work on disposal.

“Veolia has put a considerable amount of thought and effort into providing the University with sustainable and more beneficial disposal alternatives,” said Duval. “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 the waste disposal companies Pitt partners with are researching opportunities to recycle as more people emphasize 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.”

For the future

In his 24 years at Pitt, Duval said mindsets have changed on campus, with more and more people adopting attitudes that align with EH&S’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.”

Samantha Chan, 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 now and in the years to come.

“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.”   

“We’ve always looked at environmentally friendly disposal and treatment options,” Duval added. “We were well ahead of that as far as our disposal and treatment methods. We’ve had many contractors propose various incineration rate schedules, but we’d always ask the suppliers, ‘What other disposal and 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.”


— Anthony Conroy, photography by Tom Altany