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What’s the Difference Between Hazardous and Toxic Waste?

January 26, 2022

The terms “hazardous waste” and “toxic waste” are often used interchangeably. This is wrong. But even the trash cognoscente—those in the business of hazardous waste management—can sometimes get sloppy with the nomenclature.

So who cares? 

Actually, the EPA does. And since EPA rules and regulations are creatures of the agency’s peculiar terminology, it’s prudent to get things straight. They take this stuff seriously. You don’t want to offend them.

“Hazardous waste” is an umbrella term

To begin, one would do best to consider “hazardous waste” as an umbrella term. It covers many different kinds of industrial and household detritus, and “toxic waste” is but one category. (More on that later.) 

Calling something a hazardous waste is like describing your dog as a “canine” to someone who’s never seen it. You might be technically correct, but the person doesn’t know if it’s a lap dog or a pit bull: a difference that might be of acute interest if, say, he or she is your potential pet-sitter.

Listed vs. acutely hazardous vs. characteristic wastes

In the EPA mindset, a waste can be hazardous in one of three ways: 

Listed wastes. There are more than 500 substances deemed harmful to human health and/or the environment by the EPA if not managed properly. They are published in the Code of Federal Regulations (40 CFR Part 261) across four separate lists. Ergo, “listed waste.” 

Acutely hazardous wastes. Some listed wastes are so toxic as to be fatal even in low doses. Hence, they’re called “acutely hazardous.”  

Characteristic wastes. If a waste isn’t “listed” [per (1) or (2)], it might nonetheless be considered hazardous for one or more of its characteristics. Therefore, “characteristic waste.” Some characteristics that grab EPA attention:

  • Ignitability—it catches fire under certain conditions. E.g., some paints, degreasers, or solvents 
  • Corrosiveness—it’s a significant acid or base. E.g., rust removers, certain cleaning fluids, or battery acid
  • Reactivity—it’s prone to explode or release toxic fumes if heated, mixed with water, or pressurized. E.g., certain cyanides or sulfide-bearing wastes 
  • Toxicity—it’s harmful or fatal if ingested or absorbed, or it can leach toxic chemicals into the soil or ground water when disposed of on land. E.g., wastes containing cadmium, lead, or mercury. [If you don’t know whether your waste is toxic, or if you suspect your processes generate toxic waste, you should have it tested using the Toxicity Characteristic Leaching Procedure (TCLP)].

Most hazardous waste is toxic waste—but not all of it

It’s evident, then, that chances are if something’s a hazardous waste, it’s likely considered so because it’s toxic (as opposed to ignitable, corrosive, or reactive.) In other words, it’s probably hazardous because it’s harmful or fatal if ingested or absorbed.

As such, it’s no surprise that “hazardous waste” and “toxic waste” are often used interchangeably. 

If you call a hazardous waste a “toxic waste,” most of the time you’d be correct. But a lot of times you’d be wrong. And if, for example, you were to store a reactive waste as if it were “only” a toxic one, the results could be volatile.

So as a matter of communication, it’s important to keep the terms straight. Or have someone onboard at your enterprise who knows how to do so.

Don’t go it alone

Whether composed of listed, acutely hazardous, or characteristic materials, look to Hazardous Waste Experts for a one-stop solution to your hazardous waste removal, transportation, and disposal challenges.

Nationwide, we offer premier service and consultation to businesses, organizations, and government agencies, helping them navigate the cradle-to-grave responsibilities of hazardous waste management.

Get expert advice today. Or call 888-681-8923.

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