While the average consumer has moved onto digital photography, hobbyists of all ages still enjoy taking pictures with film cameras and developing photography at home. But like with many hobbies, you can build up a large stock of hobby products that can be hard to dispose of once they are used, expired, or if you’re putting your hobby down. Photography chemicals, in particular, contain certain types of hazardous materials that need to be handled with care. Let’s go over the specifics below.
Types of Photography Chemicals
As any film developer knows, a lot of chemicals are used in the development process. This process contains four steps (the three baths and the wash) that use different types of chemicals. We’ll be looking at black and white film development, as that’s the most common at home.
- Developer Bath: Developing agents contain alkalines and chemicals that interact with the silver in the photo paper, converting silver halides to create dark areas.
- Stop Bath: A dilute solution of relatively weak acids (such as acetic or citric acid) is used to stop the development process.
- Fixer Bath: To make the image permanent (and, more importantly, light-resistant), the fixer bath dissolves the remaining silver in a “hypo” chemical (ammonium thiosulfate).
- Washing: While typically just water, wash baths may include wetting agents and wash aids, such as sulfite or other non-ionic chemicals.
For color film, the process is similar but includes more complex developer solutions and dye couplers.
Silver as a Hazardous Material in Photography
While individual chemicals in these steps may also be toxic (it’s important to read their labels for proper handling and disposal options), the biggest risk to the environment comes from the silver halides that come loose in the fixer and washing baths. In significant concentrations, silver is a toxic contaminant that can disturb the biological action of a sewage treatment plant and harm aquatic life such as fish and other organisms.
Disposing of Hazardous Photo Chemicals
Photography chemicals, especially silver-laced fixer agents, should not be poured down the drain if connected with a septic system. If you’re connected to a city sewer, you need to contact your local publicly owned treatment works (municipal sewage treatment plant) to see if it’s an approved material. You should also check to see if you have any local photo processing or photo hobbyist businesses – they may accept silver-bearing fixer waste for recycling and management.
For photography or other hobbyist chemicals and products, it’s always important to check before tossing them in the garbage or down the drain. Everything from photography to chemistry has its own share of hazardous materials. For residents of Massachusetts and surrounding states, the Household Hazardous Products Collection Centers of NEDT can help you identify what hobbyist chemicals are hazardous waste. Learn more with our Fact Sheets and plan your trip today!