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10+ Important Facts About Hazardous Waste

What is hazardous waste? Where does it come from? Here we answer these, and other common questions.

Hazardous waste, as the name suggests, can be very detrimental to your health and the environment. For this reason, many countries around the world take the transportation, storage, recycling or reuse, and disposal of it very seriously. 

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What is hazardous waste?

Put simply, hazardous waste is any kind of waste that has properties that make it potentially dangerous, or capable of having harmful effects on human health and/or the environment. They are also usually defined as being materials that are not easy to erase from the earth and can be biomagnified (build up in the tissue of living beings) over time to become toxic, or cause other detrimental cumulative effects.

hazardous waste basic facts
Source: Averyaudio/Wikimedia Commons

Hazardous waste can have toxic, physical, chemical, or carcinogenic properties that may lead to: 

  • Explosion or fire
  • Infection, including infection by parasites or their vectors
  • Chemical instability, reactions, or corrosion
  • Acute or chronic toxic effects
  • Cancer, mutation, or birth defects
  • Damage to ecosystems or natural resources

Hazardous materials can also be classified as such depending on their location or utility. For example, some pesticides are only considered hazardous once they are detected in surface or groundwater.

Although potentially very damaging to the environment and human health, some kinds of hazardous waste are widely utilized in some manufacturing processes and applications. 

For example, asbestos has very useful physical properties that make it a very good material to use for fire protection and thermal insulation. However, it also happens to be incredibly hazardous to human health if airborne fibers are inhaled. 

For this reason, its use has been banned in many countries for decades. 

hazardous waste transport
Source: Ben Amstutz/Flickr

Some of the most common examples of legally defined hazardous waste include, but are not limited to: 

  • Asbestos
  • Nuclear waste (though this category is usually defined under another legislation)
  • Chemicals, such as brake fluid or print toner
  • Batteries
  • Solvents
  • Pesticides
  • Inedible oils, such as car oil
  • Equipment containing ozone-depleting substances, like fridges
  • Hazardous waste containers

But herein lies a problem with the definition of hazardous wastes - it tends to vary from country to country.  And interestingly, not every material that's classified as hazardous under a given legislation is an immediate danger to human or ecological health. 

At any rate, it is critically important that steps are taken to minimize the production and impact of hazardous wastes, as well as, having controls on their recovery and, recycling. 

Some hazardous wastes can significantly damage the environment and natural resources and contribute to, cancer, infections, irritations (ie. allergic responses), or genetic mutations in animals and humans. For example, in the United States, during the 1950s and 1960s, a dramatic decline in predatory bird populations was observed as a direct consequence of DDT exposure.

domestic hazardous waste
Some common domestic sources of hazardous waste. Source: Alachua County/Flickr

To combat these kinds of problems, many countries around the world, like the United States, the United Kingdom, and the various member states of the European Union have developed various regulations over the decades to both define what constitutes hazardous waste, and to provide legal frameworks for the management and transportation of such substances, as well as for the disposal, recycling, reuse, etc of them.

The identification of hazardous waste can be complex in some circumstances, but some public bodies, like the EPA/ESA in the US, and Environment Agency/Natural Resources and HSE in the UK, either specifically classify certain materials as hazardous outright, or provide methods for identifying potentially hazardous waste. 

According to the EPA, "Hazardous waste is waste that is dangerous or potentially harmful to our health or the environment. Hazardous wastes can be liquids, solids, gases, or sludges. They can be discarded commercial products, like cleaning fluids or pesticides, or the by-products of manufacturing processes."

hazardous waste ppe
Source: Catawba County/Flickr

Every nation places different legal obligations on carriers and handlers of hazardous waste. This usually requires registering as a waste carrier, waste producer or holder, or consignee via a permit system. 

What are the main sources of hazardous waste?

The vast majority of hazardous waste is generated over the courses of manufacturing or consumption processes of products. Other major sources include, but are not limited to: 

  • Agricultural land use and the agro-industry at large like pesticides, fertilizers, and veterinary wastes
  • Domestic sources like batteries, dry cells, polish, paint thinners, poisons, herbicides, fuels, etc. 
  • Mines and mineral processing sites
  • Health care activities in the form of biological waste
hazardous waste label
Source: Jeremy Brooks/Flickr
  • Commercial waste from gas stations, dry cleaners, and automotive facilities
  • Institutional hazardous waste sources from labs, research centers, military activities
  • Industrial hazardous waste sources especially refineries
  • Solid waste disposal sites like municipal solid waste facilities
  • Contaminated land from former industrial activities (like munitions production), or accidental spills
  • Building materials

How can you dispose of hazardous waste?

Once a material has been classified as hazardous, there are various ways in which they can be legally, and safely, disposed of. The process will vary from country to county, but will generally require most of the following steps: 

  • Separate and store hazardous waste safely and securely
  • Contact and use an authorized, insured, and qualified, waste carrier to collect, recycle, or dispose of it safely
  • Correctly and accurately fill out a consignment document for the parts that are applicable to you. Also, ensure that you receive documentation from the hazardous waste courier and disposal site post-handling
  • Keep any and all records of the process from cradle-to-grave. This is usually required for around three years, but timescales can vary from country to country
hazardous waste bins
Source: brookpeterson/Flickr

Under no circumstances should you consider unlawfully disposing of hazardous waste on your own. Breach of regulations on this matter is usually very costly, both through fines and for the public image of your organization

What constitutes proper waste management?

Hazardous waste management is usually a key element of any related legislation in many nations. Such regulations will usually impart several duties, or responsibilities on waste generators, carriers, and disposal site operators. 

This is a very large subject, so we'll only briefly touch on it here. 

In the United Kingdom, for example, proper waste management will require a "duty holder" to: 

  • Keep waste to a minimum by doing everything you reasonably can to reuse, recycle, or recover waste (in that order)
  • Sort and store waste safely and securely
  • Complete a waste transfer note for each load of waste that leaves your premises
  • Check if your waste carrier is registered to dispose of waste
  • Not allow the waste carrier to dispose of your waste illegally
hazardous waste plant
Source: h080/Flickr

Waste carriers and disposal sites will usually have extra duties of care for the safe transport, storage, recycling or reuse, and disposal of hazardous waste. These will vary from country to country too. 

In all cases, it is advised that any "duty holder" consult existing regulations and guidance documents, as well as contact relevant public bodies, to ascertain their responsibilities for managing hazardous waste.

What are some basic facts about hazardous waste?

To summarize, here some basic facts about the hazardous waste you may find interesting. This list is far from exhaustive and is in no particular order.

  • According to the World Health Organization (WHO), of the total amount of waste generated by health-care activities, only 15% is considered hazardous. This includes things like infectious, toxic, or radioactive waste
  • According to Eurostat (European Statistical Office), around 5.6 tons (5.1 tonnes of waste) was generated per EU inhabitant in the year 2016. While not all hazardous, a significant proportion of it could potentially fall under this classification
  • Further to the above, of the waste generated by EU inhabitants, about 46.6% was landfilled, with the rest recycled
hazardous waste ship
Many hazardous materials can be found in maritime vessels. Source: Adam Cohn/Flickr
  • Eurostat also estimates that about 4.2% of total waste,  which is around 94.7 million tons (85 million tonnes) was classified as hazardous for the year 2016. Of this, somewhere in the region of 82 tons (74.8 million tonnes) were treated with more than half dealt with in Germany, Bulgaria, and Estonia
  • Also according to the WHO, around 16 billion injections are administered worldwide each year. Sadly, not all of these needles and syringes are disposed of properly
  • At the time of writing, according to theworldcounts.com, almost 268 million tonnes of hazardous waste has been generated around the world so far
  • The same source estimates that over 1.9 million tons (1.7 tonnes) of pesticides have also been used so far in 2020
  • The most common household generated hazardous waste includes household cleaners, solvents, pesticides, and herbicides, used motor oil and batteries, unused and expired medication, old electronics, fluorescent light bulbs and thermometers (which often contain toxic metals), aerosol containers, and smoke detectors
  • Hazardous waste can be classified as either reactive, ignitable, corrosive, or toxic. These types of waste are usually specially regulated under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) in the US
  • Toxic hazardous waste can have very serious implications for human health and the environment if not stored or disposed of properly. They often contain things like mercury, cadmium, arsenic, lead, which, when disposed of improperly, (like when thrown in landfills or sewers) will contaminate the soil. When it rains, the contaminated liquid can seep through the ground and reach waterways and pollute groundwater

Hazardous waste is very dangerous for the environment and human health if not managed and disposed of properly. While very prescriptive legislation is in place in many countries around the world, dealing with hazardous waste is a very real challenge for even the most developed nations. 

For this reason, you may want to look at the products you use at home, or the companies you support financially, to see where you could help reduce the generation of hazardous waste personally.

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