Disposing hazardous waste requires specialized treatment and processes. However, they could also be recycled so that their entirety or their ingredients can be turned into new and beneficial products. This process is called hazardous waste recycling.
In this article, we’ll learn more about recycling hazardous waste and understand how it can benefit us and the environment we live in.
What is Hazardous Waste Recycling?
As defined by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), hazardous waste is a collective term for industrial or household waste material that exhibits possible or considerable threats to the environment or the public. Whether they be liquids, gaseous, or solids, these materials can be dangerous. They may be combustible, explosive, reactive to other materials, corrosive, or toxic.
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimates that over 400 million tons of hazardous waste is generated annually. That is around 13 tons of such material produced per second around the world. Most of these harmful wastes come from industrialized countries. These countries often ship these waste materials to other nations under the Organization for the Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Shipping hazardous waste to developing countries for disposal is seen as a grim but effective solution to alleviate their increasing cost of disposing such waste in their own country.
Hazardous waste recycling refers to the repurposing of dangerous waste materials into some other useful materials.
There are four main kinds of hazardous material that are commonly recycled or disposed:
1. Characteristic Wastes
Characteristic hazardous waste is defined by the EPA as wastes that have any or all of the following characteristics: corrosivity, reactivity, toxicity, or ignitability. These wastes are usually generated by industrial and medical facilities. These include:
2. Listed Wastes
Listed hazardous wastes refers to industrial waste materials that are automatically considered hazardous based on the process that generates them. The waste material doesn’t need to show any of the “characteristics” as described above. Examples of listed waste include:
3. Universal Wastes
Universal wastes are waste materials that are marked as “hazardous” by the EPA yet contain common materials. Universal wastes are often considered to pose a lower threat than other kinds of hazardous waste even though they are produced in massive quantities. Due to the perceived lower threat, recycling and disposal of such materials are often subjected to less strict regulatory requirements.
Examples of universal waste include:
What is Household Hazardous Waste?
Household Hazardous Wastes (HHWs) are waste materials from residential households. Note that HHWs only apply to waste materials that are labeled and sold for home use. Thus, hazardous wastes from businesses or industrial facilities are not considered HHWs.
Examples of common HHWs include:
These kinds of wastes can be collected and taken to a certified HHW collecting site for processing, treatment, recycling, or disposal.
How is Hazardous Waste Recycled?
Hazardous waste can be recycled in various ways. When waste material is reclaimed, it is processed so that it can be recovered or regenerated to its original state. For example, waste solvent could be reprocessed to remove impurities so that it could be used again as a solvent.
When waste material is reused, it may be processed so that it is used as an ingredient or an item in making a new product. It can also be broken up so that one or more of its component parts or ingredients can be used. The mercury from broken thermometers, for example, can be recovered to be used in some other product that requires mercury.
Hazardous waste material may also be utilized as a substitute for another product. For instance, used pickle liquor can be poured into wastewater as a sludge conditioner rather than using a commercially available treatment.
Another form of hazardous waste recycling is to use the material as a “constituting disposal.” This is a process that involves directly putting the waste product on another kind of material. For example, leftover materials from the process of refining petroleum can be added as an ingredient to asphalt in road construction.
Finally, waste material can be burned as fuel for generating energy.
To make hazardous waste recycling more effective, it is best to practice a specific order of actions, or waste management hierarchy. This hierarchy is actually enacted as a law in Minnesota. Other counties and states may already have implemented their own waste management hierarchy.
Minimize the use and volume of hazardous waste. This is the best, most cost-effective, and environmentally friendly way as the waste is already controlled before it is generated. In Minnesota, citizens and companies can call the team at the Minnesota Technical Assistance Program (MnTAP) for assistance in reducing waste through substitution, alternative processing, and other methodologies.
There are businesses that are on the lookout for hazardous waste that they can buy and use for another purpose. For example, rather than disposing used gallons of cooking oil, a household or a restaurant can sell the material to companies that specialize in producing biofuels. Those oils can also be sold to agricultural firms to be reprocessed into animal feed.
The last step of the hierarchy involves actual hazardous waste recycling. It can be reclaimed, reused, or utilized for energy recovery as described in the previous paragraphs. While recycling is costlier and involves a more complicated process, it is still considered cheaper and more environmentally friendlier than outright waste disposal.
Waste that cannot be recycled safely undergoes the process of treatment for safe and correct disposal.
What are the Benefits of Recycling Hazardous Waste?
It seems counterintuitive, but recycling hazardous waste could actually provide a number of benefits:
Recycling protects the environment
Incorrectly or carelessly disposing of solvents, heavy metals, and particulates can cause these hazardous materials to seep into the soil. In time, it reaches and contaminates groundwater, which is usually a primary source of potable water. Solids and gaseous materials can spread into the surrounding areas, endangering natural habitats or wildlife. When nature absorbs these dangerous substances, they are notoriously difficult, expensive, or even downright impossible to clean.
Recycling hazardous wastes, on the other hand, decreases environmental risk and exposure to such dangers. The balance of local wildlife remains intact with the reduction of foreign material into the land.
Recycling diminishes consumption of raw materials
In general, in a recycling process, fewer raw materials are needed. This is especially beneficial when it comes to hazardous waste recycling. Since existing ingredients for the next generation of products are already harvested from the recycled waste, the use of fresh raw ingredients and components to produce those new products is significantly reduced.
The reduction of raw materials is also beneficial to the environment as the individual or business entity doesn’t have to take a lot from nature.
Finally, reducing the use of raw materials provides a cascading economic effect. Manufacturers don’t have to spend a lot on raw materials, and production processes become more efficient. Subsequently, these benefits lower retail prices of the resulting end products.
Hazardous waste recycling lessens dependency on fossil fuels
Fossil fuels are finite energy resources. At the rate the world is using fossil fuels, known oil deposits could run out after 53 years, gas reserves after 52 years, and coal deposits after 150 years. However, we could preserve these fossil fuel resources a little longer by recycling waste, including hazardous ones. After all, recycling uses vastly less energy and subsequently less fuel than total production.
In addition, because the amount of fossil fuels in making hazardous products is reduced, the amount of harmful emissions released into the atmosphere is also diminished.
Recycling reduces the volume of dangerous substances that must be treated and disposed of
Like fossil fuels, the number of landfills and disposal facilities for dangerous substances are limited. Through recycling, less hazardous waste is processed for treatment and disposal. This creates a cascading benefit – less need for such landfills and facilities, decrease in energy used in operating those disposal systems, and less pollution.
Recycling hazardous waste project a positive image
The importance of environmental protection and preservation is a worldwide issue that most people recognize and support. Recycling is part of a “going green” philosophy that shows that a person, company, organization, or government is environmentally responsible. That sense of responsibility portrays a good image that increases reputation, prestige, or even revenue.
How Much Hazardous Waste is Recycled in the United States?
As part of its National Biennial Report, the EPA as well as each state government collate and report data on hazardous waste processing. The report includes information about the generation, management, recycling, and final disposal of dangerous wastes regulated under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA).
Data in 2017 shows that more than 1.5 million tons of hazardous waste generated in the country during that year are recycled. The 2017 Recyclers of Hazardous Waste Results shows further breakdown of the number.
The National Biennial Report only shows regulated recycling of hazardous waste. Dangerous wastes that are excluded from regulations or entities that have recycling exemptions are not included in the report. Additionally, the report only includes data coming from those who regularly report to the EPA such as industrial facilities, major refineries, and large disposal facilities. Thus, the actual and total number of recycled hazardous waste might even be higher, and that is actually good.
How Is Hazardous Waste Recycling Regulated?
Modern hazardous waste regulation in the US started with the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, (RCRA) which was enacted to law in 1976. The purpose of the RCRA was to make an “origin to end” system to effectively monitor the processing, management, and ultimate disposal of hazardous waste.
The RCRA record-keeping system helps track the “life cycle” of dangerous materials as well as control and reduce the amount of illegally disposed hazardous waste.
Changes to the RCRA over the years stipulated requirements for incinerators, large and small generators of hazardous waste, and disposal and recycling facilities. Landfills needed to follow strict standards or risk being closed.
The level of regulation of recycled waste varies. Specifically, it depends on what type of waste material it is and what is the method of recycling being used. EPA determines the level of regulation to match the dangers of the recycling method.
As specified under the RCRA hazardous waste regulations, recyclable materials
In 1980, Congress enacted into law the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA). CERCLA was enacted to create a financial fund for the cleanup and remediation of abandoned or closed hazardous waste facilities.
Lastly, the US is not part of the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal Convention. This is an international treaty enacted in 1992 and signed by 20 signatory nations. The Basel Convention bans the export of hazardous waste material from industrialized countries to developing countries.
The best way to control dangerous wastes is not to use them or limit their use in the first place. However, it is still a relief to know that there is a way to make use of them through hazardous waste recycling.
Although initially expensive and complex, the benefits of recycling hazardous waste far outweigh the negative impact of incorrectly disposing such waste material. As technology advances and environmental awareness expands, it will also follow that society will find better, safer, and more effective ways to recycle waste.