How big is the problem? Consider just one type of hazardous waste: radioactive and toxic wastes generated by America’s nuclear weapons plants. Cleaning up this mess alone would require the largest public works project in U.S. history. The task would take decades. And the cost could run into the hundreds of billions of dollars!
The total scope of the hazardous waste cleanup problem involves nearly 50 years of toxic substances that have been in our soil and water. And even if we can clean up the old waste, how do we keep new hazardous material out of the environment?
The first step is to understand just what hazardous waste is. A commonsense definition says that it is something that has been thrown away or released that could cause or contribute to injury, illness, or death. It could also endanger the environment.
A variety of federal laws list specific substances that are classified as hazardous. In addition, waste with any of the following four key characteristics must be treated as hazardous. These include:
Ignitability. The substance ignites when exposed to air or water or could explode below 140 degrees F. Examples includes fuels, solvents, and other volatile chemicals.
Corrosivity. The substance has a pH of less than 2 (extremely acidic) or greater than 12.5 (extremely alkaline). Acids and other chemicals used in industrial processes can meet this definition.
Reactivity. Includes all materials that react violently with themselves, water, or air by exploding or generating dangerous fumes or gases. Includes volatile chemicals and substances such as phosphorus.
Toxicity. Substances that induce illness or death or otherwise impact the health of living things. Some medical waste, asbestos, pesticides, and heavy metals like lead and cadmium are potentially toxic when dumped into the environment.
Danger in the Dumps
Until the 1970s, we simply dumped paints, solvents, chemicals, and other untreated waste into the ground or water. These substances don’t just disappear when buried or dumped. Chemicals from hazardous waste seep into the ground. They then appear in the water that we drink and the soil in which we grow food.
Today, four main methods are used for safely disposing of hazardous waste:
* Burial in carefully constructed hazardous waste landfills
* Deposit in safe underground spaces such as abandoned salt mines
* Chemical and physical treatment
These methods either change the substance so that it reduces toxicity or they remove it from the environment to minimize human contact with it. Some of these methods may be controversial. For example, while incineration results in nearly total destruction of hazardous wastes, critics say that it releases more toxic materials into the air, creating a “garbage dump in the sky.” And they add that the resulting ashes are often hazardous. If the ashes are stored or handled improperly, the problem hasn’t been solved–it’s just changed in form and been moved around.
The problems with incineration point to a more important solution to the hazardous waste problem: hazardous waste minimization. Many wastes, such as motor oil, that are hazardous when improperly dumped can be safely recycled. Hazardous waste control and minimization is not just for industry and government. One of the most important potential sources of hazardous waste is right at home.
Cleanup Begins at Home
Look around your house. Do you and your family use batteries in your portable CD player? Change a car’s oil? Use furniture cleaners or paint and varnish? All of these products, and many others in your home, contain hazardous substances. The garage holds many sources, including antifreeze, fuels, and transmission fluids. And in the yard, pesticides, fertilizers, and even flea and tick treatments can be hazardous if they are used and disposed of improperly.
Just dumping these materials in the garbage or down the drain creates hazardous waste. In New York state in a single year, for example, residents put nearly 4,000 tons of heavy metals into landfills when they throw batteries in the garbage.
To be part of the hazardous waste solution, follow these simple guidelines:
* Identify the products containing hazardous substances in your home.
* Read the labels carefully to learn what’s in them and whether there is a recommended method of usage and disposal. Don’t put hazardous materials in the garbage or pour them down a drain unless the product label says it is safe.
* Find out what rules apply for disposing of hazardous waste in your area.
* Collect discarded hazardous materials for disposal or recycling according to the product labels and local laws.
* Substitute products that don’t contain any hazardous substances.
Many localities have special waste cleanup days for collecting hazardous home products. Others allow bringing your hazardous materials to the local dump or recycling center. By minizing hazardous waste in our own home, we can make a start at solving one of the toughest environmental problems.