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What is Toxic Waste and How Do You Dispose of it?

June 14, 2022

Updated June 14, 2022

If you’re like most people, the term “toxic waste” conjures up images of gurgling barrels of semi-viscous glop, some of it oozing from the bottom of rusted barrels, all of it hidden behind some down & out industrial plant in a place you don’t want to live—and neither do the locals. 

But if you’re in the business of manufacturing, farming, construction, automotive servicing, laboratory work, medicine, and especially the chemical industry, there’s a very good chance that you’re generating one or another kind of waste that requires toxic waste disposal.

Nervous, you don’t need to be. We want to help you answer the most burning questions about how to identify and dispose of toxic waste, including:

  1. Is all hazardous waste toxic?
  2. What is toxicity?
  3. Am I generating toxic waste?
  4. What are some specific toxic wastes?
  5. How do you properly dispose of business, manufacturing, and industrial toxic waste?

Is all hazardous waste toxic?

Short answer: Nope. 

Longer answer: The terms “hazardous waste” and “toxic waste” are often used interchangeably. This is wrong. But full disclosure: even we hazardous waste experts can sometimes get sloppy with the nomenclature. So let us atone here:

In sum, toxic waste is a category of hazardous waste. So while toxic waste is hazardous waste, the reverse is a misnomer. Submitted for your consideration:

  • Many hazardous wastes aren’t toxic. Instead, they’re RCRA dangerous because they’re listed by the EPA as being dangerous and/or eco-ugly for a myriad of different reasons. (Therefore, “listed” wastes.)
  • If a material isn’t “listed” (per 1), it might nonetheless be considered RCRA hazardous for one or more of four characteristics. (Therefore, “characteristic” waste.) These characteristics are ignitability, corrosiveness, reactivity—and the object of attention herein—toxicity.

What is toxicity?

A hazardous waste exhibits toxicity when it’s harmful or fatal if ingested or absorbed, or can leach into the soil or groundwater when disposed of on land. E.g., wastes containing cadmium, lead, or mercury. 

Am I generating toxic waste?

You might think that toxic waste is somebody else’s trouble. But if whatever you do for fun or profit produces a waste that can cause harm by its being absorbed through the skin, inhaled, or swallowed—then the EPA  will beg to differ. (Ditto if it’s reactive, ignitable, or corrosive.)

In today’s milieu,  just living your life can produce toxic waste. Everyday household products such as batteries, pesticides, paint, and automobile lubricants are considered toxic when improperly disposed of. Computers, televisions, and cell phones contain toxic chemicals. 

Remember that the RCRA makes it remarkably easy to be a hazardous waste generator. E.g., the moment you uncork a can of solvent and use it, you’ve joined the ranks. 

True, you might only generate a single quart of waste solute per week, but the improper disposal of even that small amount can land you squarely in the crosshairs of the EPA, which isn’t a good place to spend any time.

And obviously, toxic products present an exponentially larger problem in commercial and industrial quantities. The list of things you can just toss into that dumpster outback is shrinking precipitously.

What are some specific toxic wastes?

The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) has published a rogues’ gallery of chemical bad-actors that pose a risk to human health and are considered toxic waste. Among them:

  • Arsenic—a ubiquitous carcinogen indispensable in the manufacture of electrical circuits, wood preservatives, pesticides, and poisoning of political rivals 
  • Asbestos—prized for its insulating quality until it was learned that inhaling stray fibers is carcinogenic. It will likely be completely banned by the end of this year. The EPA proposed a complete ban on it last April 5, 2021. 
  • Cadmiuma malleable, ductile metal that’s an excellent electrical conductor and thus indispensable for batteries and electroplating—but breathing the stuff can cause lung damage, irritation of the digestive tract, and/or kidney disease 
  • Chromium—used to line industrial furnaces, strengthen steel, in the manufacture of dyes and pigments, in wood preserving, for leather tanning, and making shiny car bumpers—it’s also associated with cancer, chronic bronchitis, and lung damage 
  • Clinical wastes—such as contaminated “sharps;” human blood and blood products; pathological, microbiological, or “isolation” wastes; cultures and stocks of infectious agents; and other stuff you don’t even want to think about—let alone touch
  • Lead—found in batteries, paints, and ammunition—can damage nerve, reproductive, and/or renal function if ingested or inhaled
  • Mercury—a liquid metal and electrical conductor used in specialty switches and found in thermometers, barometers, and other scientific instruments—not to mention your dental fillings. Exposure can lead to birth defects and kidney and brain damage 
  • PCBs—these are mostly banned but pose a risk when legacy equipment is incinerated or otherwise improperly disposed of, as exposure can damage human nervous, reproductive, and immune systems, as well as your liver 
  • Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs)—substances in chemicals and pesticides that cause nervous and reproductive system defects and that can accumulate in the environment or food chain 
  • Strong acids and alkalis—used in manufacturing and industrial production, they can destroy human skin at the site of contact within a specified period 

How do you properly dispose of business, manufacturing, and industrial toxic waste?

One of the oft-forgotten imperatives of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) is that you’re responsible for any hazardous waste you “generate” from “cradle to grave.” This term covers its generation, transportation, treatment, storage, and disposal.

Thereby, you’re not only accountable for this dangerous waste from the moment it’s generated; you’re also legally responsible for toxic waste removal: its safe transportation to wherever it will be ultimately processed or disposed of.

Or another way to look at it: Once you’ve generated a toxic waste, there’s no way to rid yourself of complete responsibility for it. 

You’ll be culpable for any improper off-site transportation and disposal—should such a thing happen—along with all the legal and financial liabilities thereto, not to mention the public relations nightmare that goes along with being labeled a “polluter.”

It can be a full-time job in itself to ensure that a hazardous waste management vendor is properly licensed and adequately experienced to handle the kind and size of waste stream you generate.

This is especially true in that you’ll need more than one kind of vendor to comprehensively manage your hazardous-waste stream: transporters, storage sites, treatment facilities, etc. 

As in all things involving the EPA—get expert advice

And thank you for reading our blog!

Disposal of hazardous waste doesn’t have to be painful.