If your business engages in construction, manufacturing, oil and gas refining or similar processes, waste generation is an unavoidable aspect of the work you do. And as global industry leaders and consumers grow more environmentally conscious, you’ll need to have effective protocols in place to help you handle your environmental waste while satisfying customer expectations and adhering to industry regulations.
What is environmental waste? The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines environmental waste as any unnecessary resource use or release of substances into the water, land or air that could harm human health or the environment. Environmental waste encompasses various types of waste, from construction scraps and demolition debris to tank residues, chemical or oil spills, air emissions and wastewater leaks. Environmental waste management is the process of handling and disposing of this waste safely.
Fortunately, with the proper waste management methods, you can take control of your waste disposal processes and make them more efficient, compliant and responsible.
Why Is Environmental Waste Management Important?
What is waste management, and why is environmental waste management so essential?
Waste management involves collecting waste, transporting it, treating it if necessary, and ultimately disposing of it in a safe, responsible way. It also involves monitoring your waste management processes to ensure they comply with regulations and promote sustainable disposal practices.
As urban populations increase, the amount of waste they generate grows larger. They produce more municipal solid waste at a growing pace. A booming urban economy means more construction and manufacturing, along with the associated wastes of these actions. All that refuse has to go somewhere, and it often piles up in landfills or slowly leaks into soil and water.
Environmental waste management is vital for a few specific ecological and health-related reasons:
- Preserving the environment: Improper disposal can have devastating ecological impacts. When wastewater leaks into the environment, it contaminates soil, lakes, streams and rivers. Physical debris pollutes the environment and poses hazards to animals if they consume waste they perceive as food — researchers recently found plastic debris in the stomachs of virtually 100% of the sea turtle hatchlings they examined. Oil spills cause catastrophic habitat degradation and can decimate wildlife populations.
- Protecting public health: Improper waste disposal can have adverse health effects on humans as well. If toxic wastes like pesticides or heavy metals seep into the groundwater, nearby residents can ingest them in their drinking water. The ingested chemicals can cause severe harms like lead poisoning, mercury poisoning or blue baby syndrome. The latter condition is associated with nutrient pollution and destroys the blood’s ability to transport oxygen through the body, especially in infants.
- Promoting safety: Even if discarded materials are not harmful to human health, they can still pose physical dangers. Discarded construction debris like glass, nails or sharp metals can cause serious physical injuries. Old drums or improperly discarded equipment could cause injuries as well — for instance, if children tried to play in them and became trapped or crushed.
How to Practice Environmental Waste Management
Implementing effective waste management practices is crucial to the success of responsible, environmentally conscious disposal plans. Below are a few practical ways to handle environmental waste management:
1. Conduct a Waste Assessment
Conducting a waste assessment gives you valuable insights into your company’s current practices and enables you to tailor, refine and develop them.
The EPA maintains a set of best practice recommendations for waste assessments. According to the EPA, a proper waste assessment should achieve the following three goals:
- Identifying the waste a facility generates, as well as the purchasing and management decisions that lead to waste generation.
- Assessing existing waste reduction strategies and evaluating their effectiveness.
- Pinpointing the operations or types of waste for which specific waste management practices would be most beneficial.
The EPA also notes that a thorough waste assessment often includes several steps, including a records examination, facility walk-through and waste sort. The facility, its complexity, the types of waste it handles, the resources it has and the intended scope of its waste management program may determine whether a company employs only one of these steps or uses a combination that meets its needs.
A facility should examine its records to collect information that can inform and improve its waste management practices. Below are some record-keeping areas that reward a thorough examination:
- Logbooks, including the logs kept for purchasing, inventory, operations and maintenance.
- Invoices, including the invoices submitted for raw materials, supplies and equipment.
- Contracts, including the documents for waste transport, storage and disposal.
- Recycling records, including contracts with recycling partners and any revenues that recycling programs bring in.
During the records examination, you can use the EPA’s provided worksheet to estimate the amount of waste your facility generates every year. You should also determine your facility’s annual costs for waste collection and disposal, noting whether you incur charges by volume or weight or pay flat fees. Once you have an established baseline of information to work from, you can begin developing a plan for streamlining your waste management processes.
During the walk-through, you’ll want to tour and inspect all areas of your facility. Observe daily operations and speak with managers and employees. Be sure to do the following:
- Gather information from talking with employees and managers and observing daily activities.
- Observe the waste your facility produces, including the types and volume of waste.
- Evaluate the physical arrangement and operations of waste-producing departments.
- Identify the processes and equipment that generate waste.
- Assess areas of efficiency and inefficiency in your facility’s waste handling.
- Determine what areas and equipment you might use for processing or storing recyclables and other waste.
- Determine the effectiveness of your existing efforts toward waste reduction.
In your walk-through, record the varieties of waste your facility produces, amounts generated, waste sources and waste-reduction practices already in place. Be sure to specify the time interval your observations span. You should also identify the materials for which expanded waste-reduction efforts would likely be beneficial. Afterward, collaborate with your team to develop new ways to reduce, reuse or recycle waste materials wherever possible.
Sorting a facility’s waste is beneficial because it enables a company to determine the materials that make up its waste streams. It also allows the company to calculate what percentages of each waste are present. You can sort your facility’s waste to get a clear overall picture of its waste production, or you can use the waste sort to focus on specific areas of waste generation.
During the sorting, you’ll want to collect, separate and measure your facility’s waste. Your objective is to identify each component of your facility’s refuse and quantify how much of your waste stream each component makes up. Be sure the collected material is substantial and diverse enough to form a representative sample of your facility’s aggregate waste. Otherwise, you’ll end up with skewed data, which will have limited value in helping your waste-reduction efforts.
The first step in preparing for a waste sort is determining what volume of waste you plant to sort and assess. For instance, you might find it easiest to sort the refuse your facility generates in a single day. However, if the volume and composition of your waste vary significantly from day to day, you’ll likely want to take representative samples of waste from across multiple days instead.
The next step in preparing for a waste sort is determining what categories of discarded materials you want to collect and calculate. For example, major elements of your waste stream might include glass, metal, paper, plastic and compostable items such as leftover food particles.
Once you know what categories of waste you need to evaluate, you can separate the different categories, weigh the waste, record the data and then calculate each weight as a proportion of the total amount.
2. Reduce Waste
Once you’ve made a thorough assessment of your facility’s waste generation, the next step is to develop a strategy for reducing waste. What are some key elements of waste reduction, and how can your company put them into practice?
Waste reduction strategies may take a few different forms. Facilities might change their product design, alter their manufacturing processes, change the materials they use or invest in strategies for item reuse. Below are a few specific waste reduction goals a facility might develop — yours may differ depending on your industry, the products you work with and your organization’s capacity to implement waste reduction programs:
- Minimizing paper waste by making reports, files, safety data sheets and training manuals available online to the appropriate personnel.
- Streamlining product design to use and discard fewer materials.
- Altering packaging to decrease its bulk and minimize waste while still providing product protection.
- Implementing a free, easy packaging return program for consumers.
- Choosing reusable instead of single-use transport containers.
- Opting for bulk orders to decrease the amount of packaging necessary for shipped materials.
3. Reuse Materials
Material reuse often forms an essential component of waste reduction strategies. Appropriate reuse can leave your facility with a much smaller, more manageable volume of waste to dispose of. Reusing items also extends their life spans and cuts down on your organization’s costs by reducing the need to buy new materials.
Reusing used goods can take numerous forms. Your facility might repair an old piece of equipment that was reaching the end of its life span. You might refurbish old devices or wash grime-crusted materials. Or you might retrieve reusable items from your waste stream and either reuse them yourself or send them to facilities that can use them.
Below are just a few ideas for ways your facility might reuse materials instead of discarding them as waste:
- Keeping cardboard moving boxes to use for storage.
- Refurbishing old office furniture.
- Shifting older electronics to departments that can use them.
- Reusing received packaging for outgoing orders.
- Collecting material scraps to reuse in smaller projects.
4. Donate or Exchange Materials
Even if you can’t reuse your old items and materials yourself, they don’t necessarily need to become waste. Before throwing them away, look into the possibility of donating them to another organization or exchanging them for other things you need. If you plan to donate items, you can almost always find a charity or nonprofit to take them.
If you’d like to trade, look into a commercial exchange program in your area that can help you get rid of unwanted items sustainably. You’ll gain the materials you need at a lower cost and with minimal environmental impact.
If you have a brewery, you could donate your used grain as animal feed. If your business is agricultural, you could donate old tractor tires as climbing structures for kids’ playgrounds instead of sending them to a landfill. If you’re a construction company, consider giving surplus construction materials to local low-income housing developers or animal shelters that need to build more pet housing. Or if you’re in the manufacturing business, look into exchange programs that could help you upgrade your equipment or swap surplus materials for needed ones.
5. Recycle Your Waste
To help your facility reduce the amount of waste it sends to landfills, commit to a robust, reliable recycling program.
With common recyclable materials like paper, metal and plastic, you can easily implement a recycling program at your facility if you have not done so already. You should also track your recycling waste in the same way you monitor waste designated for disposal. Analyze areas where you could add additional items to your recycling program — glass, corrugated cardboard, coated paper or difficult-to-recycle plastics such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC).
Check with your local authorities to determine which materials can go to recycling centers versus what is waste and must receive alternative disposal. Consider recycling old electronics and batteries at facilities designed to handle those products. Component recycling is particularly common with used electronics because they contain valuable metals like copper, silver, gold and palladium that are always in demand.
An appealing alternative might be to partner with a waste disposal company for professional recycling services so you can be sure your recycling will go through a responsible, sustainable disposal process. Local and federal laws typically regulate what materials you can and cannot recycle, and a professional waste disposal company will be well versed in those regulations. Employing third-party services will also keep your business from implementing improper recycling procedures that could incur fines.
Let the Environmental Recovery Corporation Help You With Your Environmental Waste Management
To gain the peace of mind and convenience of working with a professional waste disposal company, contact ERC. We are a full-service environmental company that offers innovative, turnkey solutions for most types of non-hazardous waste disposal. You can let us do the work while knowing you’ve invested in a safe, environmentally responsible system. We pride ourselves on our problem-solving and devotion to sustainable growth, and we are committed to helping you meet your unique waste management needs.
Use our environmental waste and recycling services, or take advantage of one of our many application-specific disposal methods, from industrial waste management services to waste drum and tote removal to contaminated soil remediation. Be sure to explore our blog for additional tips on conducting responsible waste management.
Contact us today to schedule waste management services or learn more about what we can do for you.