Three Steps to Identifying Hazardous Waste — And What to Do About It

Hazardous waste regulations in the U.S. are based on the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). Under RCRA, in order to be a “hazardous waste,” something must first be a “waste” (as that term is defined by the regulations), then it must be “hazardous,” based on a specific set of criteria. Some materials are obviously waste and are clearly hazardous — but things are not always that simple. If a material doesn’t satisfy both elements — if it isn’t a waste and if it isn’t hazardous per regulatory definitions — it may be “hazardous,” and it may be a “waste,” but it isn’t regulated as “hazardous waste.”

Here are three steps to help determine whether you are, in fact, dealing with a hazardous waste:

Determine if your waste actually is a waste.

Manufacturing, construction, academic, transportation, medical and other enterprises use a wide variety of hazardous materials as part of their business activities. These entities may need to address personal safety, worker health, flammability, corrosivity or other hazards. They also may have to comply with OSHA, DOT or regulatory requirements associated with the use of these materials. However, EPA (and state) hazardous waste requirements won’t apply until the material actually becomes a waste. Something is a waste when it is no longer needed or wanted, and when it’s not suitable for its intended purpose, including materials that are abandoned or are “inherently waste-like.” Materials that are recycled are also considered wastes.

Most of the time, determining whether something is a waste is pretty straightforward, but we’ll talk about some situations where it is not so straightforward in a later post. For now, let’s assume you have a waste, and move on to the next step.

See whether your waste is a listed hazardous waste.

Once you have determined that your waste is really a waste (as defined by hazardous waste regulations), the next step is to see if it is a “listed” waste, according to EPA lists. Waste from non-specific sources are included in List F (40 CFR 261.21), wastes from certain specific sources are included in List K (40 CF 261.32), and wastes from certain discarded commercial chemical products are included on the U and P lists (for acutely hazardous materials; found in 40 CFR 261.33). If you find your waste on one of those lists, it is a hazardous waste. 

Evaluate whether your waste has federal and/or state characteristics.

Even if your waste is not listed, it may still exhibit hazardous waste “characteristics.” According to the EPA, “A hazardous waste characteristic is a property which, when present in a waste, indicates that the waste poses a sufficient threat to merit regulation as hazardous.” There are four federal hazardous waste characteristics: ignitability, corrosivity, reactivity and toxicity. If your waste exhibits any of these characteristics (based on specific technical definitions), then the waste is a hazardous waste subject to federal regulation. Note that some states have added extra characteristics that are more stringent. For example, California and Washington each have additional toxicity criteria. Wastes that are “hazardous” with respect to a state definition (but not RCRA definitions) are referred to as “non-RCRA” hazardous wastes and must be managed as hazardous within that state. Wastes that are listed or that exhibit characteristics must be managed as hazardous waste.

Once you have determined you have a hazardous waste, based on steps 1–3, you need to manage it appropriately on-site, as required by applicable federal and state hazardous waste management requirements. This includes labeling waste, complying with specific waste accumulation limits, managing waste containers and disposing of the waste properly. All hazardous waste must be transported for disposal by a licensed hazardous waste transportation and disposal partner, who will take it to a permitted hazardous waste treatment, storage or disposal facility (TSDF). Disposal of hazardous waste must be documented on a Uniform Hazardous Waste Manifest.

James Kapin is Principal Advisor for safety, health and environmental compliance for ACTenviro.  Jim is a Certified Industrial Hygienist (CIH) and a Certified Safety Professional (CSP) with over 25 years of workplace safety and environmental protection experience.   Do you have any hazardous waste questions for Jim?  Or any other workplace safety or environmental compliance questions?  Let us know at [email protected]

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