Pollution Prevention

Pollution prevention is the practice of reducing or eliminating the generation of waste while avoiding shifting the hazards from one medium to another (e.g., from water to air, from hazardous waste to solid waste, or from environmental concerns to fire safety concerns) .  Although the pollution prevention concept is traditionally associated with hazardous chemicals, it is also applicable to energy consumption and natural resource use (e.g., water, minerals, and wood).  Generally speaking, pollution prevention strategies reduce the overall use of waste- or hazard-generating material by: 

  1. substitution with a lower-hazard alternative material or chemical;
  2. process reformulation, product redesign, or process modernization;
  3. improved housekeeping or operation and maintenance practices; or,
  4. extending the useful life of the material, product or process through reuse and recycling.  

The strict definition of pollution prevention excludes the treatment of wastes prior to disposal, since treatment methods typically involve the addition of hazardous chemical, energy, and natural resource inputs.  Toxics use reduction refers to pollution prevention efforts that focus on processes with hazardous material inputs.


Examples Of MIT Pollution Prevention Efforts

  • Silver Recovery - A central silver recovery unit, installed in the main campus (Building 68), collects and recycles fixer from the Institute’s photographic processing centers.  This unit diverts all of the Institute’s photographic fixer from the hazardous waste stream, and realizes its value as a commodity by reclaiming the silver.
  • Remanufactured Toner Purchasing - As part of an Institute-wide recycled product purchasing policy adopted in 2003, the Copy Technology Center participated in a remanufactured toner cartridge demonstration pilot.  Through purchasing of remanufactured toner cartridges, the Institute realized a per unit savings of $30 and helped reduce upstream consumption of virgin material that would otherwise be used to produce new cartridges.
  • Green Goods Purchasing - MIT has negotiated volume pricing for Office Depot’s green product line.
  • Solvent Recycling - Laboratories that use high volumes of xylene, methanol, acetonitirile and certain other solvents may be good candidates to try a model solvent recycling unit that is available for loan through the EHS Office.  Solvents, like those mentioned above, constitute the single largest contributor to MIT’s hazardous chemical waste stream.  In addition, in 2009, a major fire at an acetonitrile production facility generated a short-term worldwide shortage of acetonitrile, a common laboratory solvent.  One laboratory was able to successfully recycle acetonitrile to the desired purity and was able to avert this supply chain challenge.



Pollution Prevention Resources At MIT

Pollution Prevention Techniques

At work, at home, or in your community, you can adopt a variety of approaches to pollution prevention.  Some of these approaches eliminate the inherent hazard or waste – this is referred to as source reduction, and is considered the most preferable pollution prevention strategy.

What are examples of ways you can implement pollution prevention?  Consider:

  • packaging of products you routinely use or purchase; for chemical supplies, consider some of the paper/cardboard internal packaging changes that Sigma Aldrich, Fisher Scientific and others have introduced.  Paper/cardboard is easier to recycle and reuse than Styrofoam.
  • for a given chemical, what is the intended use and can it be achieved through an alternative means?  Toxic, aggressive acids have been used to clean stubborn residue on laboratory glassware when a lower hazard caustic might be just as effective.  Clean glassware can be oven dried rather than rinsed with acetone.  Catalysts, microwave irradiation, supercritical carbon dioxide,  and water each serve as solvent replacements in specific chemical reactions.
  • who else could use the reagent you are ordering?  Some labs centralize ordering, but many researchers place individual orders.  Over time, this can create an over-accumulation of hazardous chemical waste that is often expensive to dispose of.  Before you order, find out if anyone has the reagent you need.  EHS Assistant software includes a feature that allows labs to share inventories.
  • if a chemical has a short shelf life, minimize the quantity ordered of that chemical.   Prudent handling practices for peroxide formers like ethers, 1,4-dioxane and tetrahydrofuran indicate the material should be discarded within 12 months of opening or 18 months of receiving so as to minimize the risk of forming shock-sensitive crystals. 
  • can the material be reused or recycled?  One lab that performs DNA visualization on agarose gels removes the stained sections, melts the agarose and reuses the unstained portion.  Another lab that uses fluorinated vacuum pump oil for a high temperature process reconditions the oil through a vendor contract at a fraction of the cost of using virgin product.
  • what housekeeping or improved operation and measures can you take to prevent waste?  Worn seals on pumps create oil leaks, a hazardous waste.  How efficiently are you loading materials for sterilization in autoclaves?  MIT implemented a steam trap replacement project that yielded substantial energy savings.   
  • if a waste has been regenerated, can it be re-used or re-purposed?  
  • know your mercury sources.   In the Northeast, mercury is frequently a contaminant in bleach; Clorox Germicidal Bleach is a mercury-free product available through VWR.  Check for the common mercury-based compounds such as thimerosal and look for a mercury-free alternative.
  • how many of your office products are recycled paper or plastic content?   Recycled paper content is not just for copy paper, folders and post-its; paper towels, napkins, tissue and toilet paper are also available with recycled content. 
  • outfitting your kitchen, conference and recreation spaces with Energy Star- and EPEAT rated equipment.  From window air conditioning units to mini refrigerators and laptops, each kilowatt-hour saved adds up.
  • how your lab’s or PI’s money is being spent.  Indoor air quality or exposure issues from hazardous materials translate to increased health care costs and lost work time.  Lab cleanouts from accumulated hazardous chemicals mean the PI pays for the chemical twice:  first for the initial purchase and again when unwanted material is declared a waste.  Equipment that is not optimized for performance or is not properly maintained will consume more oil or may not carry out a process as effectively resulting in lost research time.  


Pollution Prevention As Part Of MIT’s Environmental, Health And Safety And Sustainability Initiatives

As part of its commitment to excellence in environmental, health, and safety stewardship on our campus, in the larger community of which we are a part, and globally, MIT is committed to policies and practices that reduce or eliminate the use of hazardous materials whenever possible.  This commitment is in part, intended to minimize the generation of pollutants and waste, and reduce MIT’s overall impact on the environment.  A series of guiding principles serve as the framework for MIT’s Environmental, Health and Safety Management System (EHS-MS) policy.  Embedded within the EHS-MS Policy are two guiding principles that specifically address pollution prevention:

“Opportunities will be identified and taken to reduce the production of wastes and the use of toxic materials, to prevent pollution, and to conserve and reuse resources, as feasible, because these opportunities will satisfy regulatory waste minimization requirements, reduce regulatory burdens and reap greater EHS benefits.”

“Opportunities to educate the MIT community on means of reducing waste and toxic use, preventing pollution, and conserving and reusing resources will be used whenever possible.”

In addition, pollution prevention efforts support MIT’s Sustainability and Energy Initiatives.