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What is Hazardous Waste?

By Jacob Queen
Updated May 17, 2024
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Hazardous waste is legally defined as solid waste with the potential to harm humans or the environment. This kind of waste has to be taken care of very carefully for safety reasons, and there are special regulations related to handling and disposing it. Most hazardous wastes are poisonous in some way, but some are classified as hazardous because they are flammable or explosive. A lot of hazardous waste comes from industrial processes, and increased regulation has generally led to a reduction in the amount produced.

The protection agencies define four primary kinds of hazardous waste. The first type is called “listed wastes," and that basically means that they come from industrial or scientific processes, and the agencies have protocols to deal with them. “Universal wastes” are found in everyday items like batteries. “Characteristic wastes” are similar to listed wastes, but they aren’t as well-documented, and “mixed wastes” are generally radioactive materials combined with other waste components.

The vast majority of hazardous materials come from businesses, and some aren’t actually big industrial companies. For example, auto repair shops produce a lot of hazardous waste, as do hospitals. Generally speaking, companies that produce hazardous waste products are required by law to dispose of them in an appropriate manner and protect the public from exposure. Businesses that violate these rules can be subject to legal repercussions, including private lawsuits and government prosecutions.

In the early 1990s, laws were passed that made it illegal to use regular landfills for disposal of hazardous substances. The only exception was in cases where the waste had been chemically treated to make it less harmful. There has generally been a fair amount of industrial resistance to these kinds of laws, because they can raise manufacturing costs, but that has lessened over time as more efficient disposal methods have come to the market. Some companies have found ways to recycle hazardous waste products and turn them into useful substances, while others destroy the waste with incineration procedures and similar methods.

The average person can produce significant hazardous materials in her own home. For example, pesticides used in a person’s garden can be classified as hazardous waste, and certain cleaning products are potentially very dangerous. One of the main sources of household hazardous waste comes from the automobile and various items used to maintain it. Gasoline, oil, antifreeze, and battery acid are all byproducts of automotive maintenance, and they can pose a significant risk.

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Discussion Comments

By Misscoco — On Sep 13, 2011

I sometimes wonder if those in charge of regulating the disposal of hazardous waste are doing an efficient job of this.

If the agencies aren't monitoring all of the many companies, large and small, that produce harmful waste, some companies may be cutting corners because it really cuts into their profits. Taking care of hazardous waste is not cheap.

Maybe the government could give some of the smaller companies a tax break for doing a good job of waste control. Just a thought!

One thing that the article mentioned was that some companies use the incineration method of destroying the hazardous waste. During this process, do gases enter the air? I hope not.

By Esther11 — On Sep 13, 2011

@MrSmirnov - Yes, we all have a responsibility to keep our homes and yards free of hazardous waste. Old batteries, fluorescent lights, pesticides, weed killers and many other products should be disposed of according to your local regulations.

Another hazard that some people don't think about are all the unused medications we have in our cupboards. It's no longer okay to put them down the disposal and flush them down the toilet. We don't want them in our garbage dumps or in our water systems.

Many pharmacies will take them and dispose of them for a nominal fee, or you can take them to a hazardous materials collection facility.

By starrynight — On Sep 13, 2011

@strawCake - I wouldn't get too nervous when you see those dump trucks. I know there are a ton of regulations regarding the disposal of hazardous waste. The chances of you being affected by waste in a truck that's driving near you are pretty slim.

Still though, when you think about the amount of hazardous waste we produce as a country it's staggering. I have a friend who works at a hospital, which as the article said produces hazardous waste. My friend tells me the amount of hazardous waste the hospital produces is unbelievable!

By strawCake — On Sep 12, 2011

You know, I always get a little nervous when I see those trucks on the road labeled "hazardous waste." I never considered all the potential hazardous waste I have right here in my apartment!

Honestly, I can't remember the last time I had to dispose of any kind of household hazardous waste though. For instance, I don't see why I would ever throw away a cleaning product. I always use those up! I'm going to pay close attention to local regulations in the future for sure though.

By manykitties2 — On Sep 12, 2011

@MrSmirnov - You are certainly right about households needing to be aware of hazardous waste regulations in their areas, and making sure that they store toxic trash in proper hazardous waste containers.

In our city, if you don't dispose of hazardous waste correctly you can get a huge fine. For us we have a hazardous waste cleanup day a few times a year and usually take our trash to a special hazardous waste landfill on the edge of town. It is quite the drive for us, but it is nice knowing that we have gotten rid of anything dangerous from our home and that it is being disposed of properly.

By MrSmirnov — On Sep 11, 2011

If you have your own home it is important to think about hazardous waste management, as the disposal of hazardous waste varies quite a bit according to city bylaws. Things like congealed house paint, batteries and spent fluorescent lights can all fall under the category of things that need special treatment when it comes time to throw them away.

In my neighborhood they have a special pickup date a few times a year where you can get rid of things like old batteries, oil and other hazardous household waste. Of course, while you are waiting for these pickup dates, you have to make sure everything is stored safely.

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