Chemistry Blog



Oct 26

Sigma-Aldrich: “All-U-Can-Eat” styrofoam with every purchase!*

by nickuhlig | Categories: chemical safety, general chemistry, opinion, science policy | (33016 Views)

*Substitute for weird grey flaky stuff at no extra charge!

Hi, everyone. Apologies for my absurdly long absence from the blog–I’ve been extremely busy hammering out an enormous project and writing grant applications to the Canadian government for the past few months.

Today’s post is going to be a short one, but it’s a problem that’s been vexing me for the entire time I’ve been at grad school. As the person at my lab who is charge of ordering reagents, and partially responsible for the inventory and cataloging of them, I get to see first-hand how much packaging goes into a Sigma order. I think I can speak for everyone when I say that the policies they use for determining “adequate packaging” are absurd to the point of being humourless (figures 1 & 2).

Figures 1 & 2. This is a 25g bottle of 1-decyne that we received today from Sigma, shown for scale with the size of the box and the amount of styrofoam used to ship it. This is far from the worst case of overpackaging I have seen.

Now, I understand several things:

  1. These are indeed hazardous chemicals (sometimes)
  2. A breakage or leak in transit would be a “non-trivial” (cf. dangerous and embarrassing) problem
  3. The company is responsible for making sure that I receive the items intact and in perfect condition
  4. There are numerous regulations regarding the transport and handling of these materials, both domestically and across international borders

HOWEVER. When receiving items from Strem or Alfa, the packaging isn’t nearly as excessive (that is, they usually ship multiple items individually wrapped in a single box, unlike Sigma, who generally place a single item in a single box for an entire order, unless there are a series of similar items, such as various 500 mg bottles of pybox ligands). Both Alfa and Strem ship from the U.S., so I know that it isn’t simply a border issue, and indeed, when things get shipped to us by Sigma from Oakville, Ontario, the reagents are still swaddled in enough layers of plastic pillows, styrofoam, grey fabric, or that weird flaky stuff to survive getting thrown out of an airplane. I’ve received orders where individual 1g bottles of reagents are packed in their own boxes, resulting in an entire garbage can full of packing junk after ordering only 5-10 g total of actual materials.

It may be a funny coincidence that I work in a “green chemistry” oriented laboratory, but all comedic weepiness aside, this packaging offends me every time I make an order. The amount of styrofoam alone that goes into the garbage here every week could probably fill a hot tub, and that stuff never goes away. I’ve found an aftermarket use for the grey fabric, and the boxes can be recycled easily, but the rest of it just goes straight to a dump.

So, I pose these questions to fellow chemists and other scientists in the States:

Does Sigma-Aldrich use the same asinine packaging policies when shipping domestically?

Does it enrage you, having to swim through a sea of styrofoam just to find your starting material?

Do you fantasize about sending back the box-o-styrofoam with a note encouraging them to re-use it?

Do you fantasize about collecting a year’s worth of Sigma-foam and filling your swimming pool with it?

What is that weird greyish flaky stuff?




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  1. RB Woodweird

    So… what do you do with that grey fabric?

  2. nickuhlig

    I own a Volkswagen Cabrio, and I use the fabric to make tighter seals for the roof mechanism. It cuts down on wind noise and reduces heat loss on the occasions when I drive it in the winter.

  3. Adi Nako

    More than anything the excessive use of styrofoam makes me paranoid about what else might be present. Even though I know I’ve only placed a single order for a single bottle, and even though they always send bottles separately, I still spend around five minutes every time carefully rummaging around to make sure there is nothing else in there!

  4. John Spevacek

    I think the weird grey flaky stuff (as your referred to it) is vermiculite. I’m always happy to get that as when my wife and I dig up flower bulbs in the fall, we store them in it.

    1. Nick

      I’ll definitely start saving that stuff too, then. I have a ton of plans that could use a bit of it to keep moisture levels higher in between waterings.

  5. Curious Chloride

    That grey fabric stuff is very absorbent. We keep a stash of it for spills and leaks.

  6. Honclbrif

    Recent order for benzyl bromide received from Fisher/Acros: bottle in vermiculite in a can in vermiculite in another can (with one of those impossible snap rings) in a box in a bag in another box. However, sodium azide? Just chuck the bottle in a cardboard box. What’s the worst that can happen?

    At least they got the amount I ordered vaguely correct this time. Not like the time I ordered 5 mL of TMS-diazomethane solution and they sent EXACTLY 2.5 mL (srsly WTF?). Can’t complain too much though, for as much as they suck in terms of packaging, reagent quality, and actually getting your order right in any way shape or form, their customer service reps are great and will bend over backward to try to fix whatever other mistakes their company has made.

    1. Nick

      Definitely true. Their customer service is quite good.

  7. Mitch

    We received 4 packages from Sigma today. The undergrad opened them for us. There are now peanuts everywhere!

  8. grubber

    I did feel a little like christmas last week when I got six boxes for 4x5g, 1x50g and 1x110g of compounds. a lot of extra stuff to dig through, so sigma might need a little streamlining of their packaging-divisi0on..

  9. cc labstaff

    I save the styrofoam peanuts, bags of air, and bubble wrap. I take them to a shipping store nearby that will ship things for people using UPS, FedEx, etc. They are always very appreciative.

  10. organic.chemist

    The FedEx guy will usually even take bags of peanuts to the local shipping store, since he goes by there anyway to pick up other packages. They’re always happy to get more (they just turn around and sell the stuff).
    The grey absorbent cloths are miracle materials! Our favorite use *in* the lab is cleaning benchtops and hoods. I’m serious, spritz a little methanol on the surface, and wipe it up with one of those cloths . . . you’ll never use paper towels again!! Also, they can absorb several times their own weight in just about any liquid (from aqueous to super lipophilic). I take home a small stack anytime I’m going to change the oil in my car to put down on the concrete.
    Three R’s!!

    1. lulu

      Bring the grey mats to PChem labs, they are super absorbent and are great for changing oil.

  11. Chemjobber

    Those grey pads are worth their weight in gold.

  12. 96well

    Not only Sigma does it, Qiagen also. And with inert inox beads, see there:

  13. hazardous waste Long Beach

    Materials that were used for packing could still be used if you would be allowing companies to collect them to make them useful again at the same time could decrease amount of carbon footprint.

  14. Everest

    Some of this packaging is in fact, comical. And I also understand that some contain hazardous materials and the extra packaging has a purpose. But most of these cases are truly packaging overkill. Wasteful, costly, and takes up a lot of unnecessary space in transit. Thanks for this. Good to get the word out. Like your writing style!

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