Hazardous waste conjures up images of glowing radioactive blocks and dangerous carcinogens. And it is that, but it is also so much more – hazardous waste and hazardous waste industries are all around us — at the dry cleaners, in the paint at the hardware stores, in the drug store with the nail polish and pharmaceuticals. Sarah Moore is a professor from the University of Wisconsin – Madison’s geography department who works on hazardous waste streams. She says hazardous waste is a difficult category to pin down.
“These things are hazardous to human health and they environment, but that has a wide range of categories: it could be flammable, it could be toxic and/or poisonous, obviously anything radioactive, so its not as straightforward a question to answer.”
In many ways, hazardous waste is an entirely separate waste stream than typical everyday trash. Unlike trash, which gets mixed together, each type of hazardous waste is handled separately and uniquely. Municipal trash usually gets dropped off at a nearby landfill. Hazardous waste, on the other hand, can travel across the continent, to a facility dedicated to processing that specific type of waste. And while we think of trash as travelling mostly by truck, hazardous waste often travels by train.
“Historically the railways were at least believed to be good transportation for those kinds of residues because they are generally thought of as safer, in part because they are less likely to get into accidents things like that. But its true that a good deal of the hazardous waste that is shipped between the US, Canada and Mexico also happen through trucking,” Moore says.
Over recent years, the waste management industry has been consolidating. Just last year, the largest waste disposal company in the United States, Waste Management Incorporated, acquired the fourth largest company, Advanced Disposal Services. The merger was challenged by the Wisconsin Department of Justice for promoting anti-competitive practices, as it effectively reduced the number of waste disposal companies operating in Dane County from 3 down to only 2.
The industry consolidation has been affecting hazardous waste disposal as well. Veolia is a French Trans-national waste disposal company. It handles the hazardous waste disposal for the Dane County landfill, and is one of the largest hazardous waste companies active in North America. This year it acquired Suez, its major competitor in the European market, for 15 billion dollars. And Moore says fewer competitors can have unforeseen consequences for hazardous waste management.
“The reasons for these agglomerations is two-fold. One: you need specialized facilities in order to manage it properly. And then second, as I said, is that there are only a few companies that do this and so what we found when were trying to figure out what most determined where hazardous haste went in the US, Canada and Mexico, corporate consolidation was the determining factor. And its one that people don’t often think about. People think about needing the facilities and proximity. In our study proximity didn’t really matter.”
When hazardous waste reaches its destination, a few things can happen to it. Many substances are incinerated, although that leaves its own waste in the form of residue. Other substances are buried or stored in underground tanks. The most hazardous substances are buried in concrete, so that there is no possibility of leakage.
Siting hazardous waste facilities can be a fraught process. Often hazardous waste facilities are in poorer states or regions, with few options for economic opportunities
“Some local managers they spoke to in this area said its either the prison or the waste facilities, these are our choices. For some communities, its is a choice for jobs… The other thing I would say is that a lot of these things are sited without community input at all, and often not that much input from local government either,” says Moore.
And even when a site is licensed, the materials that are shipped to that site can change over time, often without the local community being informed.
“So if you were one of these big conglomerations, you could have a facility in Michigan and one of these reason you as a big conglomeration bought that facility is that it has manufacturing capabilities that you convert to waste management. And then you can make decisions about bringing in materials that maybe weren’t originally part of what you said you were going to do because your part of a giant network of corporations and you have different material streams that you are moving around the country,” Moore says.
Hazardous waste is regulated at the federal level by the EPA. And on the international level, there is an agreement called the Basel Convention that tries to standardize hazardous waste processing internationally. While both Canada and Mexico are signatories, the United States is not, but our regulations are broadly similar. Yet even with standardized regulations on paper, enforcement and monitoring can be varied across countries and states.
Figuring out how much hazardous waste is being produced is quite difficult. Since most hazardous waste is generated by private enterprises, who then hire a private company to handle it, the actual volume of waste is hard to pin down, Moore says.
“So that’s actually one of the most difficult things to figure out, because of the ways that hazardous waste is being tracked. Its still almost impossible to track a lot of those quantities at least as they move internationally. So I would be hard-pressed to give you a volume.”
The types of hazardous waste produced can also change quite quickly. Lead-acid batteries like those found in car batteries are a success story of hazardous waste. They used to often be shipped to Mexico where they were put in landfills. But regulations and industry practices now mean that a large percentage of lead acid batteries are now recycled instead of being disposed of. However lithium-ion batteries like the ones found in handheld electronics have greatly increased in volume. Recycling efforts have been spotty, and they are currently a problem material for waste handlers.
E-recycling more generally is a problem for hazardous waste management. The fledgling industry is trying to address the large increase in consumer electronics that are making their way into the waste stream, but the recycling process itself often produces hazardous waste, sometimes with little or no oversight.
“I think on the one hand, people are good to take it out of the landfill, but it is a little unclear, and it has been unclear historically exactly where those materials end up. There has been for the last decade an increase in tracking of where they go, and a lot more regulation about trying to prevent them from being shipped to parts of China for example, or certain countries like Ghana in Africa. So people have tried to stave of those international shipments, and there has been a lot of increased regulation to prevent that from happening. But on the other hand, its not really clear what happens to a lot of these items when they are supposed to be recycled either,” says Moore.
Image courtesy of: ar130405/Pixabay