Environmental waste is a broad category of waste that includes many wastes and byproducts, including liquid waste, debris, spent oil and hazardous wastes. Improper transport of these wastes, especially hazardous waste, can negatively impact the environment and lead to significant fines.

So how can you transport your environmental waste securely, efficiently and in accordance with the law? In the guide below, we’ll discuss how waste is transported, who can transport hazardous waste and how to make sure your environmental waste undergoes safe, compliant, environmentally conscious disposal.

What Is Hazardous Waste?

Hazardous waste consists of discarded products and materials that could cause serious harm to human health or the environment.

Hazardous waste can come from many sources. Some batteries constitute hazardous waste, and so do some industrial byproducts and medical wastes. Many pesticides, herbicides, cleaners, paints and solvents are classified as hazardous waste as well.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classifies hazardous waste into a few different categories:

  • Listed wastes: Listed wastes are on the list of hazardous materials that the EPA has compiled. They come from common industrial and manufacturing processes and used commercial products. Examples include spent solvent waste, veterinary pharmaceuticals manufacturing waste, pesticide manufacturing waste and petroleum refinery wastewater treatment sludge.
  • Characteristic wastes: Characteristic wastes are wastes that are either toxic, reactive, corrosive or ignitable. Specific tests are available to determine the toxicity, corrosivity or ignitability of a waste. Examples of these wastes include spent oils, battery acid, lithium-sulfur batteries, explosives, and mercury or lead wastes.
  • Universal wastes: Universal wastes are commonly used residential and commercial items that could pose health or environmental hazards. Examples include some batteries, pesticides, thermostats that contain mercury and fluorescent light bulbs.
  • Mixed wastes: Mixed wastes have both hazardous components and radioactive components. Examples include waste from the development and production of nuclear weapons and from spent nuclear fuel reprocessing. Completely radioactive waste is categorized separately because of its unique dangers and handling requirements.

A History of Hazardous Waste Treatment — What You Need to Know

Hazardous waste treatment began to receive increased attention in the middle of the 20th century because of rising public health safety concerns. Increasing solid waste generation, decreasing space in which to dispose of that waste, skyrocketing disposal costs and public worries about the location of new landfills too close to homes and businesses all necessitated changes to the handling of hazardous waste.

Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA)

The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) of 1976 governs all aspects of hazardous waste. Under the RCRA, the EPA has the authority to regulate hazardous waste from the cradle to the grave. From the waste’s creation through its transport, treatment and storage, and finally to its disposal, companies are responsible for handling their waste safely, responsibly and in an environmentally sound way.

The passage of the RCRA allowed the EPA to create a framework for the safe transportation and processing of hazardous waste. Under the RCRA, the EPA developed policies, regulations and guidelines to ensure safe hazardous waste management and cleanup, as well as to promote programs encouraging waste reduction and reuse.

Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA)

In 1986, the passage of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA, also known as Superfund) created a federal superfund to clean up toxic waste sites, along with hazardous spills, leaks and other discharges.

Under CERCLA, the EPA has the authority to investigate facilities and require them to cooperate in cleanup efforts when they are responsible for spills, leaks or improper disposal. This requirement gives hazardous waste generators an incentive to dispose of their waste safely and prevent discharges into the environment.

Hazardous and Solid Waste Amendments

In 1994, Congress passed a set of essential amendments to the RCA — the Hazardous and Solid Waste Amendments. These amendments included a new land disposal restriction (LDR) program. In addition to prohibiting land disposal of untreated hazardous waste and banning indefinite storage of hazardous waste, the LDR program required the EPA to specify acceptable hazardous waste concentrations for disposal and necessary treatment standards. It also prohibited companies from merely diluting their hazardous waste as an alternative to treating it properly.

The LDR program set forth treatment standards that significantly reduce the toxicity of hazardous wastes and immobilize them, so they are less likely to leak. These regulations reduce the chances of contaminants’ leaching into the environment and make the potential effects of such breaches less catastrophic.

Hazardous Waste Treatment Today

The RCRA and its amendments are still in effect today — and safe hazardous waste transportation today is more vital than ever for keeping people safe and healthy. The U.S. population is larger than ever, so a hazardous waste spill could affect and sicken thousands of people. With urban expansion and climate change putting increased pressure on the natural environment, it’s critical to make sure hazardous waste leaks and spills don’t add to environmental degradation and biodiversity loss.

Staying Compliant With Toxic Waste Laws and Regulations

Whatever your business or industry, it’s essential to remain compliant with toxic waste laws and regulations. Staying compliant helps you protect your business’ reputation, avoid penalties, and ensure that your wastes have minimal adverse impacts on human health and the environment.

The RCRA contains many regulations governing hazardous waste. Here is an overview of a few key requirements — we encourage you to read the applicable sections of these regulations in greater detail to understand how they apply to your facility and its waste.

  • Part 261 – Identification and listing of hazardous waste: Facilities that handle hazardous waste must manage it properly according to its EPA identification and listing.
  • Part 262 – Standards applicable to generators of hazardous waste: Facilities that generate hazardous waste must package, label, mark and placard their waste according to EPA standards. They must also use the required manifest, keep adequate records and have emergency procedures in place.
  • Part 263 – Standards applicable to transporters of hazardous waste: Companies that transport hazardous waste must use the appropriate EPA identification number, comply with manifest requirements, keep the necessary records and have plans for taking immediate cleanup action if a discharge occurs.
  • Part 264 – Standards for owners and operators of hazardous waste treatment, storage and disposal facilities: Owners and operators of hazardous waste treatment, storage and disposal facilities must commit to proper preparedness and prevention and develop contingency plans and emergency procedures. They must also use the manifest system appropriately, keep the necessary records and reports, maintain adequate facility standards, and manage tanks, containers, surface impoundments, waste piles and landfills according to EPA rules.
  • Part 266 – Standards for the management of specific hazardous wastes and specific types of hazardous waste management facilities: Facilities that manage certain types of hazardous waste must follow specific protocols regarding recycling materials, reclaiming spent lead-acid batteries, burning waste in boilers and industrial facilities, and disposing of military munitions and hazardous waste pharmaceuticals.
  • Part 270 – EPA-administered permit programs: Facilities that generate and handle hazardous waste must file a notification of that activity and apply for an RCRA permit. The RCRA requires a permit for any treatment, storage or disposal of hazardous waste.
  • Part 273 – Standards for universal waste management: Facilities that handle universal waste must abide by the EPA’s prohibitions and time limits and handle different items according to EPA rules. They must also label and mark waste to identify its type, and they must contain all waste releases immediately.

Hazardous Waste Transportation and Transporters

Hazardous waste transporters move hazardous waste from one facility to another. They may travel over highways, waterways, railroads or air routes and use trucks, tankers, trains, barges and other vehicles. They often transport waste from the facility that generates it to a place that can recycle, treat or dispose of it safely. They may also take treated waste to a more specialized facility for additional treatment that will allow for waste disposal according to the law.

The process of hazardous waste transportation involves picking up hazardous waste from the generating facility, transporting it by land, air or water, sometimes holding it in a transfer facility, and delivering it to a treatment or disposal facility. Transporters must maintain accurate manifests, make sure hazardous wastes are labeled appropriately and store the wastes in approved Department of Transportation (DOT) containers at any transfer facilities they use.

Transporters play a critical role in the life cycle of hazardous waste because they help the waste get safely to a facility that can dispose of it without jeopardizing public health or harming local ecosystems. Hazardous waste transporters must follow a few different steps to remain in compliance as they operate:

  • Get an EPA identification number: A transporter cannot legally transport hazardous waste without an EPA ID number. This number helps the EPA keep track of hazardous waste transport operations.
  • Use the EPA’s hazardous waste manifest system appropriately: Except when dealing with some small-quantity generators, the transporter cannot receive hazardous waste that does not come with a proper manifest. The transporter will sign and date the manifest to indicate receipt of the hazardous materials and have the receiving facility do the same after transport.
  • Address hazardous waste discharges according to protocols: If a hazardous waste leak or spill occurs, the transporter is responsible for immediate cleanup.
  • Comply with DOT hazardous materials regulations: The DOT maintains rules that govern the transport of hazardous waste, and transporters must obey them. These regulations include requirements for marking, labeling and placarding hazardous waste containers, as well as responding appropriately to discharges.

So, how is biomedical waste transported? Transporting biomedical waste, such as chemotherapy waste, soiled bandages, used gloves and contaminated needles, comes with its own set of requirements. For transport, facilities must typically categorize their medical waste by color — red containers for sharps, red bags for regulated hazardous medical waste, yellow bags for chemotherapy waste and so on. In many states, biomedical waste must always remain separate from other types of waste during transport and storage.

Before 1997, more than 90% of biomedical waste was incinerated. But since incineration can seriously degrade air quality, the EPA now maintains Hospital Medical Infectious Waste Incinerator (HMIWI) standards that limit incineration. More medical waste now undergoes steam sterilization, microwave treatment, chemical and mechanical breakdown and pyrolysis — a specific type of thermal decomposition.

When your facility plans to transport biomedical waste or any other hazardous waste, hiring professional help is imperative. A professional hazardous waste transport company can give you the peace of mind of knowing your waste disposal will be safe, efficient and ethical and will keep you in compliance with federal regulations.

How Is Toxic Waste Disposed Of?

Disposal facilities can dispose of toxic waste in a few different ways:

  • Sealed underground containers: One common disposal method for hazardous waste involves storing the toxic material underground in sealed containers. The sealed containers make sure the hazardous waste can’t leak and contaminate the soil or groundwater.
  • Clay caps: Another disposal method, one that works well with less-toxic hazardous waste that is likely to remain in place, such as soil mixed with contaminants, is to seal off the contaminated area with a clay cap. Like sealed containers, the clay cap helps keep the waste from polluting the surrounding environment.
  • Lined landfills: Some hazardous waste goes into lined landfills. The special linings in these landfills — often clay, plastic or concrete — keep hazardous waste from leaching into the groundwater and soil.
  • Incineration: Incineration can also get rid of hazardous waste, and it offers the advantage of destroying the waste completely, so it will not require landfill space. However, incineration releases pollutants into the atmosphere, and facilities must take care not to allow toxic fumes from the hazardous waste to affect air quality.
  • Bioremediation: Bioremediation involves using microorganisms to break down toxins or reduce them to safe levels. Some bacteria can even digest oil, so they are useful in cleaning up discharges like those from oil tanker spills. A similar process called phytoremediation uses plants instead of microorganisms to break down toxic substances.

Hazardous Waste Treatment

Some toxic waste many require treatment before it is ready for disposal. In this case, a few different treatment options are available:

  • Incineration: Incineration is useful for disposing of hazardous waste, and it can also be used to treat toxic waste before disposal. Burning the waste helps remove toxic substances, particularly organic substances, so the waste can go into the earth without risk of contamination.
  • Oxidation: Oxidation is also helpful for treating hazardous waste. Reduction-oxidation reactions are paired reactions in which one substance gains electrons, and one substance loses electrons. Wet air oxidation uses a high-pressure, high-temperature stream of air to catalyze chemical reactions and transform toxic pollutants into easily biodegradable compounds or less harmful forms.
  • Biological treatment: Biological processes like activated sludge treatment use bacteria to break down toxins in hazardous wastewaters to make them safer for disposal.

Partner With ERC for All Your Environmental Waste Disposal Needs

To see the benefits of a professional waste disposal company for your facility, contact ERC. Our environmental waste transport services will keep you in compliance with federal laws and help you dispose of your waste safely, responsibly and in an environmentally conscious way. As industry leaders in waste disposal, we want to help you find the innovative disposal solutions you need, and we have the technology, experience and problem-solving expertise to get you there.

Contact us today to learn more.