Friday, August 15, 2014

sample packaging 1

Sample packaging for shipment is an aspect of the environmental biz that may seem minor, but different field folks/organizations have strongly-held and conflicting opinions on The Correct Method.

For this post, I'll focus on shipping fragile samples (glass bottleware) to a commercial lab. The basics are that you need to keep everything intact and cold, and prevent leakage. In practice, each unit (department, office, etc) has its own standard procedures. These generally started out based on the requirements of the most stringent major client/regulatory regime, and were further modified based on past experience and/or the idiosyncrasies of whoever was in charge.

The variations I've seen are:

Preventing Breakage - Bottleware

The standard is to use bubble bags for each sample bottle. Unless you're packaging smaller vials, in which case you may be required to rubber-band them together and/or separate them with paper towels before adding to a larger bubble bag.

I've shipped all sorts of bottles. The worst, which I haven't had to use in ages, were 4-liter glass bottles (like these). The 4-liter bottles broke if you looked at them funny, were incredibly heavy and awkward when full, and were so tall, you'd have to use special coolers to have enough space for ice/packaging. If the lab needs a large volume of liquid, send them a bunch of 1-liter bottles.

Prevent Breakage - Stuffing

Some folks are more casual about stuffing than others. In my experience, bottles that can shift are the ones which will break. Also, you will inevitably find that you need to send a couple bottles and you only have standard (large) coolers.

1.  More ice: this will make your cooler weigh a ton. Also, if you use only ice (and a lot of it), it's liable to shift as it melts.
2. Bubble wrap only: it's easy for the lab to dig through/remove, but you'll go through epic amounts of bubble wrap.
3. Whatever you can get your hands on. I tend to use this method. I usually hoard packing materials that I get from other field supplies as they come in, which annoys my office/trailer buddies. Packing peanuts and other loose items go into 1-gallon ziplocks for quick use later. In a pinch, I've been known to inflate a ziplock bag and then double-bag it to take up more space.
4. Vermiculite: this stuff was great. Absorbed liquids, super soft, and poured right into the cooler to fill every available space. The only downside was that you tended to get it everywhere. Oh, and vermiculite may also have some trace of asbestos in it and has been banned as a packing material.

Prevent Breakage - Outer Layer

1. A layer of bubble wrap goes all around the outside of the trash bag.
2. No, a layer goes all around the inside of the trash bag, damn it!
3. You already have everything in bubble bags, why would you need another layer of bubble wrap?
4. An absorbant pad goes on the bottom of the cooler, inside or outside of the trash bag. Or not.

Keeping Samples Cold

1. Use blue gel ice packs. You may never get them back, though. Also, some jurisdictions frown on using them.
2. Double-bagged ice (usually 1-gallon ziplock bags). Some folks like to make fat pillows by stuffing them as much as possible, but I like to keep some empty space so that they can be squashed into place.
3. Use special, super-strong ziplock bags and only 1 bag for ice.
4. Freeze water in plastic containers (such as old water bottles) and toss those in. They'll stay frozen longer, but are much harder to place right next to/above samples.
5. Ice only beneath samples!
6. Bags of ice beneath samples may cause shifting as they melt. Ice only above samples!

Prevent Leakage

Everybody (I think) uses a trash bag to line the inside of the cooler itself. Many places require you to also seal off (usually with duct tape) the water drain spigots. But what if a bottle breaks?
1. Samples go into individual bubble bags, then ziplock bags!
2. Samples go into ziplock bags, then bubble bags!
3. Why the heck would you need ziplock bags when the bubble bags are already sealed at the top?

Sealing the Cooler

I'm not going to get into the variations in maintaining the chain of custody (COC) here. But you do need to make sure the cooler itself is secure, and usually that you have COC seals over both sides.
1. Strapping (filament) tape only. Stick the COC seal on just before the last wrap or two of tape.
2. Duct tape or strapping tape, then COC seal, then clear packaging tape.
3. Clear tape only (with the COC seal somewhere in there) is fine.

Addressing the Cooler

1. The shipper's label may come off. You need a secondary address label!
2. A secondary address label won't stick to the top of a cooler, which invariably has a weird pebbly texture. Cover the tops of all coolers with duct tape so that the address label will stick.
3. Geez, no need to waste duct tape. Just tape the secondary address label on first, and use at least one really long strip of clear packing tape to hold it on. It'll get caught under the strapping/duct/clear tape that will go around the cooler .
4. A secondary what? Have you seen how sticky those clear shipper sleeves are? Just stick one of those on the mandated location (top of cooler or on a specific tag for the handle).

Despite all our best efforts, bottles do break. Sometimes, entire coolers' worth, if that cooler was apparently dropped a few stories. But we go through a lot of contortions to get the most secure samples, because the cost of all this effort and our fancy supplies are minimal compared to the cost it took to acquire those samples.


C W Magee said...

Also, don't ship bottles of samples dissolved or suspended in organic solvents (e.g. ethanol, acetone). This is ILLEGAL (if unlabeled) and DANGEROUS, because those solvents are fire hazards, especially if your bottle breaks.

I kid you not.

Short Geologist said...

Yeah, we use methanol for some soil samples and have to be very careful with the quantity/packaging requirements. So complicated!

Unknown said...

Where did you hear that vermiculite is a banned packaging material? All modern sources of vermiculite are tested for asbestos and documented by the mines. I am a manufacturer and sell to lab packing companies in the US and have asbestos tests provided to me for our raw materials regularly.

Short Geologist said...

@ Michael: I don't know about official packing bans, but after about 2004ish, we were not allowed to use any vermiculite for packing samples. Whether that was client preference or overly conservative SOPs, I don't know. But I never saw vermiculite used as packing material since (and this was for several different organizations).