Hazardous waste is waste that poses substantial or potential threats to public health or the environment. In the United States, the treatment, storage, and disposal of hazardous waste are regulated under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). Hazardous wastes are defined under RCRA in 40 CFR 261 where they are divided into two major categories: characteristic wastes and listed wastes.
- Characteristic hazardous wastes are materials that are known or tested to exhibit one or more of the following four hazardous traits:
- Listed hazardous wastes are materials specifically listed by regulatory authorities as hazardous wastes which are from non-specific sources, specific sources, or discarded chemical products.
The requirements of RCRA apply to all the companies that generate hazardous waste as well as those companies that store or dispose hazardous waste in the United States. Many types of businesses generate hazardous waste. dry cleaners, automobile repair shops, hospitals, exterminators, and photo processing centers may all generate hazardous waste. Some hazardous waste generators are larger companies such as chemical manufacturers, electroplating companies, and oil refineries.
These wastes may be found in different physical states such as gaseous, liquids, or solids. A hazardous waste is a special type of waste because it cannot be disposed of by common means like other by-products of our everyday lives. Depending on the physical state of the waste, treatment and solidification processes might be required.
Worldwide, the United Nations Environmental Programme(UNEP) estimated that more than 400 million tons of hazardous wastes are produced universally each year, mostly by industrialized countries (schmit, 1999). About 1 percent of this is shipped across international boundaries, with the majority of the transfers occurring between countries in the Organization for the Economic Cooperation and Development(OECD) (Krueger, 1999). One of the reasons for industrialized countries to ship the hazardous waste to industrializing countries for disposal is the rising cost of disposing hazardous waste in the home country.
Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA)
Hazardous wastes are wastes with properties that make them dangerous or potentially harmful to human health or the environment. Hazardous wastes can be liquids, solids, contained gases, or sludges. They can be by-products of manufacturing processes or simply discarded commercial products, like cleaning fluids or pesticides. In regulatory terms, RCRA hazardous wastes are wastes that appear on one of the four hazardous wastes lists (F-list, K-list, P-list, or U-list), or exhibit at least one of four characteristics-ignitability, corrosivity, reactivity, or toxicity. Hazardous wastes are regulated under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) Subtitle C.
By definition, EPA determined that some specific wastes are hazardous. These wastes are incorporated into lists published by the Agency. These lists are organized into three categories: F-list (non-specific source wastes) found in the regulations at 40 CFR 261.31, K-list (source-specific wastes) found in the regulations at 40 CFR 261.32, and P-list and the U-list (discarded commercial chemical products) found in the regulations at 40 CFR 261.33.
RCRA's record keeping system helps to track the life cycle of hazardous waste and reduces the amount of hazardous waste illegally disposed.
Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act
The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), was enacted in 1980. The primary contribution of CERCLA was to create a "Superfund" and provide for the clean-up and remediation of closed and abandoned hazardous waste sites. CERCLA addresses historic releases of hazardous materials, but does not specifically manage hazardous wastes.
Hazardous wastes in the United States of America
A U.S. facility that treats, stores, or disposes of hazardous waste must obtain a permit for doing so under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Generators and transporters of hazardous waste must meet specific requirements for handling, managing, and tracking waste. Through the RCRA, Congress directed the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to create regulations to manage hazardous waste. Under this mandate, the EPA developed strict requirements for all aspects of hazardous waste management including the treatment, storage, and disposal of hazardous waste. In addition to these federal requirements, states may develop more stringent requirements that are broader in scope than the federal regulations. Furthermore, RCRA allows states to develop regulatory programs that are at least as stringent as RCRA and, after review by EPA, the states may take over responsibility for the implementation of the requirements under RCRA. Most states take advantage of this authority, implementing their own hazardous waste programs that are at least as stringent, and in some cases are more stringent than the federal program.
Hazardous Waste Mapping Systems
The US government provides several tools for mapping hazardous wastes to particular locations. These tools also allow the user to view additional information.
- TOXMAP is a Geographic Information System (GIS) from the Division of Specialized Information Services of the United States National Library of Medicine (NLM) that uses maps of the United States to help users visually explore data from the United States Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Toxics Release Inventory and Superfund Basic Research Programs. This is a resource funded by the US Federal Government. TOXMAP's chemical and environmental health information is taken from NLM's Toxicology Data Network (TOXNET) and PubMed, and from other authoritative sources.
- The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) "Where You Live" allows users to select a region from a map to find information about Superfund sites in that region.
Universal wastes are special category of hazardous wastes that (in the U.S.):
- generally pose a lower threat relative to other hazardous wastes
- are ubiquitous and produced in very large quantities by a large number of generators.
Universal wastes are subject to somewhat less stringent regulatory requirements. Small quantity generators of universal wastes may be classified as "conditionally exempt small quantity generators" (CESQGs) which release them from some of the regulatory requirements for the handling and storage hazardous wastes.
Universal wastes must still be disposed properly. (For more information, see Overview of Requirements for Conditionally Exempt Small Quantity Generators)
Household Hazardous Waste
Household Hazardous Waste (HHW), also referred to as domestic hazardous waste or home generated special materials, is a waste that is generated from residential households. HHW only applies to waste coming from the use of materials that are labeled for and sold for "home use". Waste generated by a company or at an industrial setting is not HHW.
The following list includes categories often applied to HHW. It is important to note that many of these categories overlap and that many household wastes can fall into multiple categories:
- Paints and solvents
- Automotive wastes (used motor oil, antifreeze, etc.)
- Pesticides (insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, etc.)
- Mercury-containing wastes (thermometers, switches, fluorescent lighting, etc.)
- Electronics (computers, televisions, cell phones)
- Aerosols / Propane cylinders
- Caustics / Cleaning agents
- Refrigerant-containing appliances
- Some specialty batteries (e.g. lithium, nickel cadmium, or button cell batteries)
- Radioactive wastes (some home smoke detectors are classified as radioactive waste because they contain very small amounts of radioactive isotope of americium - see: Disposing of Smoke Detectors).
Final disposal of hazardous waste
Historically, some hazardous wastes were disposed of in regular landfills. This resulted in unfavorable amounts of hazardous materials seeping into the ground. These chemicals eventually entered to natural hydrologic systems. Many landfills now require countermeasures against groundwater contamination. For example, a barrier has to be installed along the foundation of the landfill to contain the hazardous substances that may remain in the disposed waste. Currently, hazardous wastes must often be stabilized and solidified in order to enter a landfill and must undergo different treatments in order to stabilize and dispose them. Most flammable materials can be recycled into industrial fuel. Some materials with hazardous constituents can be recycled, lead acid batteries.
Many hazardous wastes can be recycled into new products. Examples may include lead-acid batteries or electronic circuit boards. When heavy metals in these types of ashes go through the proper treatment, they could bind to other pollutants and convert them into easier-to-dispose solids, or they could be used as pavement filling. Such treatments reduce the level of threat of harmful chemicals, like fly and bottom ash , while also recycling the safe product.
Another commonly used treatment is cement based solidification and stabilization. Cement is used because it can treat a range of hazardous wastes by improving physical characteristics and decreasing the toxicity and transmission of contaminants. The cement produced is categorized into 5 different divisions, depending on its strength and components. This process of converting sludge into cement might include the addition of pH adjustment agents, phosphates, or sulfur reagents to reduce the settling or curing time, increase the compressive strength, or reduce the leach ability of contaminants.
Incineration, destruction and waste-to-energy
An HW may be "destroyed". For example, by incinerating it at a high temperature, flammable wastes can sometimes be burned as energy sources. For example, many cement kilns burn HWs like used oils or solvents. Today, incineration treatments not only reduce the amount of hazardous waste, but also generate energy from the gases released in the process. It is known that this particular waste treatment releases toxic gases produced by the combustion of byproduct or other materials which can affect the environment. However, current technology has developed more efficient incinerator units that control these emissions to a point where this treatment is considered a more beneficial option. There are different types of incinerators which vary depending on the characteristics of the waste. Starved air incineration is another method used to treat hazardous wastes. Just like in common incineration, burning occurs, however controlling the amount of oxygen allowed proves to be significant to reduce the amount of harmful byproducts produced. Starved air incineration is an improvement of the traditional incinerators in terms of air pollution. Using this technology, it is possible to control the combustion rate of the waste and therefore reduce the air pollutants produced in the process.
Hazardous waste landfill (sequestering, isolation, etc.)
An HW may be sequestered in an HW landfill or permanent disposal facility. "In terms of hazardous waste, a landfill is defined as a disposal facility or part of a facility where hazardous waste is placed or on land and which is not a pile, a land treatment facility, a surface impoundment, an underground injection well, a salt dome formation, a salt bed formation, an underground mine, a cave, or a corrective action management unit (40 CFR 260.10)."
Some hazardous waste types may be eliminated using pyrolysis in an ultra high temperature electrical arc, in inert conditions to avoid combustion. This treatment method may be preferable to high temperature incineration in some circumstances such as in the destruction of concentrated organic waste types, including PCBs, pesticides and other persistent organic pollutants.
- Toxic waste
- Bamako Convention
- Brownfield Regulation and Development
- Environmental remediation
- Gade v. National Solid Wastes Management Association
- Household Hazardous Waste
- List of solid waste treatment technologies
- List of Superfund sites in the United States
- List of topics dealing with environmental issues
- List of waste management companies
- List of waste management topics
- List of waste types
- Mixed waste (radioactive/hazardous)
- National Priorities List (in the US)
- Radioactive waste
- Retail hazardous waste
- Toxicity characteristic leaching procedure
- Triad (environmental science)
- Vapor intrusion
- "Resources Conservation and Recovery Act". US EPA.
- 40 CFR 261
- 40 CFR 261.31 through .33
- Orloff, Kenneth, and Henry Falk. 2003. An international perspective on hazardous waste practices. International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health 206 (4-5):291- 302.
- Chaudhary R., Rachana M., 2006. Factors affecting hazardous waste solidification/stabilization: A Review. In: Journal of Hazardous Materials B137 pp.267–276
- Hazardous Waste Landfills
- Land Disposal Restrictions for Hazardous Waste
- The US National Library of Medicine Hazardous Substances Data Bank (HSDB)
- Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
- The EPA's hazardous waste page
- The U.S. EPA's Hazardous Waste Cleanup Information System