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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 is 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.
The requirements of RCRA apply to all the companies that generate hazardous waste as well as those companies that store or dispose of hazardous waste in the United States. Many types of businesses generate hazardous waste. For example, 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 total 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). Some of the reasons for industrialized countries to ship the hazardous waste to industrializing countries for disposal are the rising cost of disposing hazardous waste in the home country.
Modern hazardous waste regulations in the U.S. began with the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (R.C.R.A.) which was enacted in 1976. The primary contribution of R.C.R.A. was to create a "cradle to grave" system of record keeping for hazardous wastes. Hazardous wastes must be tracked from the time they are generated until their final disposition.
RCRA's record keeping system helps to track the life cycle of hazardous waste and reduces the amount of hazardous waste illegally disposed.
The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), was enacted in 1980. The primary contribution of CERCLA was to create a "Superfund" and provided 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.
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 of 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.
The US government provides several tools for mapping hazardous wastes to particular locations. These tools also allow the user to view additional information.
Universal wastes are special category of hazardous wastes that (in the U.S.):
Universal wastes are subject to somewhat less stringent regulatory requirements and small quantity generators of universal wastes may be classified as "conditionally exempt small quantity generators" (CESQGs) which releases them from some of the regulatory requirements for the handling and storage hazardous wastes.
Universal wastes must still be disposed of properly. (For more information, see Overview of Requirements for Conditionally Exempt Small Quantity Generators)
Household Hazardous Waste (HHW) (also referred to as domestic hazardous waste) is waste that is generated from residential households. HHW only applies to wastes that are the result of the use of materials that are labeled for and sold for "home use". Wastes generated by a company or at an industrial setting are 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:
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 natural hydrologic systems. Many landfills now require countermeasures against groundwater contamination, an example being installing a barrier 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 many hazardous wastes undergo different treatments in order to stabilize and dispose of them.
Many hazardous wastes can be recycled into new products. Examples might include lead-acid batteries or electronic circuit boards where the heavy metals these types of ashes go though 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.
A 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 they also generate energy throughout 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 and this can affect the environment. However, current technology has developed more efficient incinerator units that control these emissions to a point that this treatment is considered a more beneficial option. There are different types of incinerators and they 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.
A HW may be sequestered in a 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.