Failure to properly manage hazardous waste can have significant acute and long-term negative effects on human health and the environment. It can contaminate surface water, groundwater and land. It can also lead to costly fines, litigation and shutdown of business operations, regardless of health and safety consequences.
For example, a waste management company in Tacoma, Washington, recently paid $2.2 million to settle with the state Department of Ecology over a 2018 fire on the local tideflats and subsequent compliance violations. While no employees were harmed in the fire, inspectors found the company improperly managed cleanup and concerns were raised for populations living downwind of the fire. Later that year, another fire in the facility’s shredder led to additional fines and penalties.
However, an incident like the tideflats fire one doesn’t have to occur for businesses to face fines. An electric vehicle company faced $31,000 in penalties for violations of air emissions standards and hazardous waste determination and management at a California facility. Its settlement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency included an additional $55,000 investment in local emergency response equipment and enhanced training for thousands of employees.
What Is Hazardous Waste Management?
Both companies needed better hazardous waste management systems.
Hazardous waste management is a process to ensure the storage, treatment and disposal of dangerous waste is conducted in a manner that protects the health and safety of people and the environment.
What Types of Hazardous Waste Exist?
Businesses are responsible for determining if their waste is hazardous. Hazardous waste is most commonly classified as:
- Toxic — This includes poisons with immediate, long-term and/or chronic health effects.
- Reactive — This type of waste violently reacts with elements like air or water.
- Ignitable — This includes materials flammable at low temperatures.
- Corrosive — This type of waste eats away at other materials like metal.
Beyond these common categories, hazardous waste may also be infectious, such as needles disposed of at hospitals, or radioactive, such as spent nuclear reactor fuel.
How Is Hazardous Waste Managed?
Businesses that generate hazardous waste are responsible for managing the final outcome of those materials, whether that’s recycling, storage, treatment or disposal. Waste management procedures are industry-specific, and regulations also depend on the quantity of waste produced. Ideally, businesses will reduce and recycle as much as possible. Remaining material must be carefully disposed of or stored.
The process typically begins with transport, when waste is sent to a separate facility or company for management. Transport is carefully monitored, and many countries require careful documentation every step of the way. Next, waste is often treated to reduce the quantity, prepare it for recycling and/or to lower toxicity levels. Treatment methods are diverse, and may include burning, chemical reprocessing, bacterial biodegradation or physical solidification, among other methods.
Waste storage is just as diverse. Some storage is temporary, for waste awaiting treatment or another use. Temporary storage includes ponds, lagoons or waste piles designed to prevent dispersion and seepage. Waste that cannot be recycled, treated or destroyed is permanently stored or disposed of in secure landfills, or it may be injected deep underground into porous rock.
Hazardous waste management systems have major environmental, health and safety ramifications. From a business perspective, hazardous waste must be managed efficiently and effectively to limit those risks and avoid legal and financial implications. This requires a robust management system, including processes to test and designate hazardous waste, record outcomes and respond to incidents.