Purchasing lab chemicals is an important role for many operations, but it’s also one that comes with unique challenges. Most notably, purchasers often need to fulfill urgent chemical orders on a limited budget. As a result, bulk chemical sales are a common (but flawed) solution.
Believe me, I understand. I spend a lot of time in the grocery store fixating on unit pricing. There’s something particularly gratifying about reducing cost and maximizing value. But what happens when you buy more than you can use?
In the case of produce, much of it ends up getting thrown away, or worse, it’s forgotten in the back of the fridge and becomes a moldy mess. Either way, the full extent of the initial savings isn’t realized, and in the latter case, additional hazards are created.
The same principles apply to purchasing chemicals for lab operations. While it’s understandable to try to minimize cost, there are often unintended consequences associated with bulk chemical orders. This is especially true when purchasing chemicals for new processes.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen lab facilities buy in bulk, only to realize after a couple runs that the process isn’t worth continuing. At that point, the decision becomes whether to dispose of the remaining material (a complete waste) or store it for (a potential) later use.
Let’s breakdown these two options.
In most cases, the first thought is to save remaining material for future use. This may be a good option if you’re likely to use the material for a similar process in the future, but there are important considerations to make before committing to this option.
- Increased Risk. Some chemicals are highly hazardous and others become more hazardous over time (e.g., through peroxide formation or polymerization). In these cases, the potential benefits (cost savings of a future order) need to be weighed against the potential consequences (risk of future incident or exposure). It may not be worth the risk of keeping a hazardous material onsite if a guaranteed need can’t be identified.
- Regulatory Limits. Many facilities have strict regulatory limits for certain classes of materials (e.g., flammables, oxidizers, etc.). These limits may be based on building code, local ordinance, or other factors. Because of this, you may need to consider whether other operations will be limited by the storage of excess material for an undetermined future use.
- Storage Space. I have yet to hear complaints of “excess storage space” during an audit, but I have had many groups reference too little storage space as an underlying cause of compliance issues. Before committing to storing excess material, make sure you have adequate space (with the appropriate controls) to do so safely.
The last thing anyone wants to do after purchasing (often expensive) chemicals is to turn around and immediately dispose of them. However, after going through the considerations above, it may be your only option. Not only is this wasteful (and undermines the initial goal of saving money), you may soon learn that chemical disposal can be very expensive on its own. In fact, in some cases, disposal of hazardous materials is more expensive than the original purchase price.
Tips for Purchasing Lab Chemicals
- Chemicals for New Processes. Ramp up slowly. Only order enough to get through the first couple of runs before committing to larger orders. Constantly evaluate the “what ifs” and have a definitive plan for any excess material if the process is terminated.
- Particularly Hazardous or Time Sensitive Material. Prioritize more frequent orders of smaller volumes. The lower the volume of hazardous material you are able to keep onsite (while remaining productive), the safer your employees, equipment, and facility will be. Attempting to save a few dollars up front through bulk orders can really cost you down the road.
- Plan for Disposal Before the Initial Order. It’s always a good idea to develop a disposal plan before placing the initial order. This can be done by submitting a quote request to your hazardous waste hauler. For particularly hazardous or time-sensitive materials, it’s worth getting a quote for both the final waste product and initial reagent. This is because a number of factors impact the final disposal, including other constituents, stabilization needs, etc. Knowing in advance what the disposal costs will be can help guide your ordering decisions.
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