Disposing of Photographic Chemistry
Oh it was fun while it lasted but your chemicals are tired, exhausted or just plain dead, so it’s time to properly dispose of them. It not as easy as just dumping them down the drain and walking away. Even though they no longer have the strength to process film they still need to be neutralized and disposed of in a proper manor. First know your localities restrictions and how and where your chemicals go if they are put down a drain. Most municipalities in the U.S. allow small amounts of photo chemicals to be discharged into the municipal sewer system, i.e., hobbyist amounts. Larger users, such as photo finishers are subject to other regulations. Check with your city and see.
The key words of photo chemical disposal are neutralize and dilute. The first rule of diluting photographic chemistry is water temperature, hot melts and quickly dilutes and cold kills.
Let’s start with B/W chemistry. Mixing developer and stop bath together quickly neutralizes each other, follow with lots of cold then by hot water. If you are disposing these two separately, dilute your developer with cold then follow with hot water. Stop bath is acetic acid, like strong vinegar, follow the same method as developer disposal, cold then hot water. Fixer is a different story, fixer has silver dissolved in it. You can place the used fixer in a bucket and de-silver it by placing a pad of steel wool in it. About a week of this should “collect” the silver, carefully pour off the liquid, use the cold and hot regiment, and dispose the steel wool pad and contents at your local chemical waste collection point. There are also products called silver magnets which collect the silver from spent fixer. You really need to be using a lot of fixer to use a silver magnet and not burn it out, the steel wool works just as well. With some research you can find places will buy the silver sludge from you, do not expect to get rich.
If you use a septic tank system use caution with photo chemical disposal. Lots of water in the method recommended above is your friend. Using the product Rid-x on occasion to keep your bacteria level as it should be is also recommended. I lived with a septic system for many years and kept it healthy and happy this way.
If you are concerned about anything going down the drain there is another method you can use. It’s not quick but it keeps it out of the water and soil. Place used chemistry in buckets and allow it to evaporate to a solid and properly dispose through your local hazardous disposal route. If you use this method keep those buckets safe from kids and animals. Mark them clearly with the contents.
Color chemistry, like C-41 and E-6 are usually all disposed of at the same time. Work backwards and pour the stabilizer into the blix and the blix into the developer(s). Then dispose with cold water then hot water method. There is actually very little silver in color film, it is mostly dye based so recouping or removing it is not an issue unless you are a commercial user.
I would never suggest illegal dumping of chemicals but let’s be sensible and remember our water treatment plants are meant to neutralize small amounts of hazardous products we flush down the drains such as household cleaners and prescription drugs, and my horrible cooking. Most municipal areas have waste treatment plants with secondary bacterial treatment systems. These plants can handle most photo chemicals solutions if the volumes and concentrations of contaminants are not too high.
Remember dilution is the solution, be safe and sensible.
Leslie Lazenby discusses photo chemistry disposal on Film Photography Podcast Episode 200. DOWNLOAD (Right Click, Save As) or visit the Episode 200 Show Notes Page.
Photos by Owen McCafferty
Leslie Lazenby fell in love with photography when she was given her first camera, a GAF 126, at the age of 10. Her first job in a camera shop with a custom and commercial photo lab turned into a 20-year adventure in film; leading to positions in darkrooms, customer relations, and as head of purchasing. For the past 15 years, Leslie has owned her own business, Imagine That, retailing traditional photography products, photographic restoration, custom printing and video conversions. She finds her Zen next door at her studio, the Mecca, where she plays with her film cameras, processes film and holds small classes focusing on teens and young adults. You can find Leslie's photos on her FLICKR account!