When the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was founded in 1970, there were no laws or regulations in place to hold companies accountable for their hazardous waste generation or disposal. At this time, the EPA estimated that only about 10 percent of hazardous waste was being properly managed, which led to the creation of the Resource Conservation Recovery Act (RCRA).
RCRA led to a body of regulations that defined exactly what a solid waste is, as well as what a hazardous waste is. It also set the requirements for the proper management of hazardous wastes to minimize environmental impact and prevent harmful materials from polluting the land, water and air.
One provision in RCRA is cradle to grave liability, which means that if your facility generates hazardous waste, you are responsible for it from the time it is generated through the time of its ultimate disposal — including what happens to it 20 or even 120 years from now.
It is important for facility managers to understand that when it comes to hazardous waste liability, there are ways to minimize future liability. Knowing what options are available is the first step in long-term hazardous waste management.
The EPA encourages facilities to reduce their use of hazardous materials whenever possible. One way to do this, for example, is substituting non-hazardous or less hazardous chemicals used in processes. The EPA also promotes recycling because it minimizes the amount of waste that needs to be managed. Disposal should be a last resort.
When it comes to disposal, the most common method for getting rid of hazardous waste is landfilling. Landfills that accept hazardous wastes are regulated under EPA’s Treatment Storage Disposal Facility (TSDF) requirements and can only operate under a special permit.
Hazardous waste landfills are typically lined and have several other safeguards in place to prevent the hazardous waste from entering the environment. They also maintain liability insurance to cover the cost of an environmental cleanup in the event that there is release. But, even with these safeguards, the ultimate liability for the hazardous waste remains with the generator.
Hazardous wastes can also be incinerated or fuels blended. Both of these processes thermally destroy the waste. The difference between the two processes is that fuels blending converts the energy that is generated by burning the waste into a viable product, such as electricity or fuel, whereas incineration simply burns the waste. Because of this, fuels blending is also sometimes called “waste to energy.” Fuels blending is also viewed as a recycling process, whereas incineration is viewed as a form of disposal.
Incineration and fuels blending minimize the volume of waste that is land disposed. In many cases, the residual ash that is left after the waste has been burned can be used as a product to make cement. When waste is thermally destroyed and the residual ash is used to make concrete or other products, the waste generator’s future liability is all but eliminated because the waste has been destroyed and is converted into a usable product.
Because it is a form of recycling, fuels blending sometimes qualifies the facility to take advantage of RCRA’s hazardous waste exemptions. It can also potentially reduce the facility’s generator status.
Proper disposal of hazardous waste — such as recycling, incineration and fuels blending — can reduce your facility’s future liability. These practices also help keep employees safe, prevent pollution and lessen regulatory burdens.
You tell us: What’s your company’s method for disposing of hazardous waste?