Lehigh University

All Waste is not created equal

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Courtesy of Lehigh University

If you live in a house, apartment or similar abode, you produce waste. Right? You probably can't go a week without producing waste. All kinds of waste. Call it trash if you want. It's still waste. And if you don't live where recycling is mandatory or there is no outlet for your voluntary environmental tendencies, everything goes into the trash - bottles, cans, cardboard, plastics, bottle caps, paint cans, light bulbs, fluorescent lamps, camera and flashlight batteries, pesticide bottles, pressurized spray cans, aluminum foil, used oil, greasy rags - you name it. It's an easy life, isn't it! You've even tried to make a 'two pointer' at one time or another, gracefully aiming a piece of waste in a beautiful arc toward your trash can and congratulating yourself if it went in.

Ahh, but it's not so easy if you're an industry. If you're an industry, you've got rules that declare that not all waste is created equal.

The government has declared that there are six kinds of waste: construction/demolition, hazardous, special, industrial/residual, municipal, and universal. With this list you begin to see that tossing all waste into one waste bucket isn't possible.

Construction and demolition waste includes bricks, concrete, roofing materials, framing lumber, cement blocks, dirt and similar materials associated with construction.
Municipal waste includes such innocuous materials as your lunch bag, the little box your french fries came in, the wrapper from your tummy pills, cloth, the paper from the bottom of your bird cage, beat up old pieces of wood, and so on.
Hazardous waste includes a collection of items the government says is harmful to people and the environment. There are two kinds of hazardous wastes, 'characteristic' and 'listed.'
'Characteristic' hazardous wastes include four categories:

  • Ignitable waste refers to wastes that ignite easily and have a flashpoint under 140 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Corrosive waste involves chemicals that eat their way through containers and skin if you get it on yourself.
  • Reactive wastes are those that explode or react violently with water or generate toxic gases.
  • Toxic wastes can poison groundwater and streams 

'Listed' hazardous wastes include a special set of materials such as PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) and PCB-containing oils, asbestos, hospital wastes that have to be disposed of by burning by and at approved facilities,

Industrial or residual waste includes waste from industrial processes that isn't a product or co-product: mill wastes, wood wastes, greases and waste water.
Universal wastes include fluorescent lamps, mercury-containing switches and thermometers, sodium lamps, NiCad batteries and unused pesticides and herbicides With all these categories of waste to account for, industries must have programs for waste segregation. This is a process that some conscientious city folks go through when they separate their glass bottles, plastic containers, metal cans, newspapers, magazines, cardboard and steel.

Industries have discovered that there are benefits to waste minimization (making less waste) and waste segregation. They save money.

Industries save the most money by preventing waste (pollution) at the source. This makes sense. If you don't produce waste in the first place, you don't have to spend any money to deal with it.

The next best step is to find technology (machinery and equipment) or processes that does away with waste production. This is often expensive in the short run because industry has to spend money on new technology, but in the long run it pays off because, again, they don't have to deal with waste.

The next best step is do what we've been talking about - segregate waste so you can do something with it:

  • sell it for recycling (bottles, concrete, bricks, lumber, plastics)
  • sell it for processing into something else
  • dispose of it in a government-approved manner.

All of these options except disposal either save money by avoiding disposal (which you have to pay for) or make money through sales.

The remaining options don't make any money. An industry may be able to reuse some of the materials it once discarded as waste. Examples might be steam and gas that can be used to produce energy. Recovered scrap and gaseous or liquid substances that can be reintroduced into a production process would be other examples. Reusing materials only saves you money that you don't then have to spend buying raw materials.

Another option is to pay someone to take waste. Obviously this is not a money maker, but for some wastes there is no choice. Infectious wastes from dispensaries and hospitals, and radioactive wastes from various sources must be handled by approved facilities.

Finally, when all else fails, industry may have to process its wastes to make it environmentally safe and then dispose of it in an approved landfill or underground injection well.

In the end, then, proper handling of waste is not only good because it satisfies the law, but it makes good economic sense and the more thoroughly waste management is handled, the better it is.

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