Ricardo Cruz snaps on purple rubber gloves, opens heavy metal doors marked with assorted “caution” signs, and ushers his visitor into a warehouse for a behind-the-scenes tour of toxic waste.
Like any research university, UC Irvine generates tons of biomedical, chemical and universal waste such as cell phones, batteries, and computers. Where does it go? Inside rooms with thick cinderblock walls, Cruz and several co-workers at Environmental Health & Safety separate and store research refuse, including drums of corrosive acid and flammable liquids, bins of dead batteries, stacks of obsolete computer towers and fluorescent lamps containing mercury.
An EH&S hazardous waste operations specialist, Cruz sounds like a chemist as he rattles off the names of the toxic substances like acetone and hexane he encounters daily.
“Each chemical has its own hazard, and we treat all of the materials with the highest precaution,” Cruz says. “You have to be aware of your environment and what you’re doing to stay safe.”
In a room reserved for old electronics, he pulls out a rusty computer tower that contains lead and copper. “You can imagine what would happen if that reached the landfill – those toxic materials would leach into the ground,” he says.
In another room, he points to containers filled with photo processing solution used in photo processing units. “The bad thing in here is silver. It’s toxic and needs to be recycled,” he says.
Cruz wears so much protective gear he requires an annual physical just to make sure he’s fit enough to wear it all – including steel-toed boots and, on occasion, a hooded respirator mask that makes him look like an astronaut.
EH&S processes about 140 tons of chemicals, 115 tons of electronics and 33 tons of biomedical waste annually. By law, generators of chemical and universal waste have one year to dispose of it. To ensure compliance, EH&S provides online forms for anyone needing a hazardous waste pickup. Every 90 days, waste is collected and incinerated or recycled.
Cruz joined UCI in 2001 after working at a private treatment and storage facility.
“Ricardo has been instrumental in transforming the hazardous waste program,” says Kirk Matin, hazardous waste manager. “He takes time to educate the campus community about environmental protection issues and approaches his job with a positive attitude.”
Cruz is a familiar, friendly figure to lab technicians and researchers all over campus, especially in the chemistry department, where he makes weekly pickups.
“I’ve had calls at 3 a.m. from a researcher saying, ‘I’m in my lab. Can you bring me some containers?’ They get so involved in their research they forget I’m home sleeping.”
Although he’s never been called on a major hazardous waste emergency, Cruz says he’s ready. As a team leader, he makes sure fellow staffers sport the right gear to handle toxic materials before entering a site.
“I like suiting up and responding to calls – it’s exciting,” he says.