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  • Jennifer F. Novak

What Do You Really Know About Hazardous Waste in Our Environment?

April 30, 2021

pile of batteries

As our global population and commercial and industrial activities continue to grow, so do the amounts of hazardous waste we generate and ultimately, dispose of. Explaining what exactly hazardous waste is, as with most things, it depends on who you ask.


What is Hazardous Waste?


The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, otherwise known as RCRA, is the federal law that creates the framework for dealing with hazardous waste management from “cradle to grave” and provides the most understandable starting point for designating something as a hazardous waste: it must be solid and have characteristics making it dangerous or potentially harmful to human health or the environment. So, defining hazardous waste starts outdeceptively simple.


The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, CERCLA for short, is the federal statute that among other things, directs how funds are to be used to clean up deserted or uncontrolled hazardous waste sites. CERCLA’s description for hazardous substances largely refers to other outside regulations to define them, including RCRA. California’s own Hazardous Substance Account Act, a/k/a HSAA, also outsources its definition of hazardous substances, referring to Title 42 of the Unites States Code, among several other US Code sections, to lengthily define hazardous substances. The United States Environmental Protection Agency uses the following guidelines to determine whether a substance is considered hazardous: ignitability, corrosivity, reactivity, and toxicity.


Ultimately, the definition and identification of hazardous waste is quite broad, significantly more complicated than a few paragraphs can cover, and reaches a countless number of sources, or generators, of hazardous waste. Yet, no matter the exact definition applied, the common thread is that everyone generates some level of hazardous waste, just some more than others.


How Does Everyone Create Hazardous Waste?


Most everyone, yourself included, generates some level of hazardous waste; think about your collections of old batteries, buckets of half used paint in the closet, and even old bottles of motor oil in your garage.


However, hazardous waste generators getting the most attention from federal and local regulators are usually agricultural, commercial and industrial businesses of all sizes. Even the smallest business has hazardous waste to properly dispose of—every time they change the toner cartridge in the office printer, or the fluorescent lights bulbs in the ceiling tiles. Larger generators have more serious hazardous waste issues when they have to manage, for example, sludge from waste treatment plants or other discarded solids and semi-solids from commercial or agricultural activities.


So, it follows that uncontrolled hazardous waste produced at larger levels, and even combined at smaller levels, can negatively impact our environment.


What Does Hazardous Waste Do to Our Environment?


The impact of hazardous waste depends on the composition of the waste itself. Wastes that are ignitable can lead to uncontrolled fires if not properly disposed of. Wastes that are corrosive or reactive can irreparably damage the soils and waterways, they are stored upon and around. Wastes that are toxic can poison surrounding plant and other biological life, including people, leading to illness and even death. The chain reactions are potentially endless. For example, solid waste landfills are a leading producer of methane, a gas that contributes to global climate change.


How Do We Regulate Hazardous Waste?


To prevent the uncontrolled accumulation of hazardous waste, and the resulting damage, regulators at both the state and federal level require generators of hazardous waste to minimize its impacts. RCRA gives U.S. EPA the power to monitor and control the generation, transportation, treatment, storage, and disposal of hazardous waste. CERCLA generates funds via taxes and fines used to clean up abandoned hazardous waste sites and accidents involving hazardous wastes. HSAA is California’s own version of CERCLA under Cal/EPA.


These regulations and programs employ various measures of reusing waste where possible or recycling it if not. Where reuse and recycling are not feasible, the regulations shift to the proper storage, treatment or disposal of hazardous waste. Of course, each strategy looks different depending upon the specific nature of the waste being managed, but without these regulations and those that enforce and adhere to them, it’s not a stretch to surmise we would all be living in a literal wasteland.

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