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16.5: Waste Regulations

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    Regulatory Framework in the United States

    During the course of the 20th century, especially following World War II, the United States experienced unprecedented economic growth. Much of the growth was fueled by rapid and increasingly complex industrialization. With advances in manufacturing and chemical applications also came increases in the volume, and in many cases the toxicity, of generated wastes. Furthermore, few if any controls or regulations were in place with respect to the handling of toxic materials or the disposal of waste products. Continued industrial activity led to several high-profile examples of detrimental consequences to the environment resulting from these uncontrolled activities. Finally, several forms of intervention, both in the form of government regulation and citizen action, occurred in the early 1970s.

    Ultimately, several regulations were promulgated on the state and federal levels to ensure the safety of public health and the environment. With respect to waste materials, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), enacted by the United States Congress, first in 1976 and then amended in 1984, provides a comprehensive framework for the proper management of hazardous and non-hazardous solid wastes in the United States. RCRA stipulates broad and general legal objectives while mandating the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) to develop specific regulations to implement and enforce the law. States and local governments can either adopt the federal regulations, or they may develop and enforce more stringent regulations than those specified in RCRA. Similar regulations have been developed or are being developed worldwide to manage wastes in a similar manner in other countries.

    The broad goals of RCRA include: (1) the protection of public health and the environment from the hazards of waste disposal; (2) the conservation of energy and natural resources; (3) the reduction or elimination of waste; and (4) the assurance that wastes are managed in an environmentally-sound manner (e.g. the remediation of waste which may have spilled, leaked, or been improperly disposed). It should be noted here that the RCRA focuses only on active and future facilities and does not address abandoned or historical sites. These types of environmentally impacted sites are managed under a different regulatory framework, known as the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) of 1980, or more commonly known as "Superfund."

    Solid Waste Regulations

    RCRA defines solid waste as any garbage or refuse, sludge from a wastewater treatment plant, water supply treatment plant, or air pollution control facility and other discarded material, including solid, liquid, semi-solid, or contained gaseous material resulting from industrial, commercial, mining, and agricultural operations, and from community activities. In general, solid waste can be categorized as either non-hazardous waste or hazardous waste.

    Non-hazardous solid waste can be trash or garbage generated from residential households, offices and other sources. Generally, these materials are classified as municipal solid waste (MSW). Alternatively, non-hazardous materials that result from the production of goods and products by various industries (e.g. coal combustion residues, mining wastes, cement kiln dust), are collectively known as industrial solid waste. Because they are classified as non-hazardous material, many components of municipal solid waste and industrial waste have potential for recycling and re-use. Significant efforts are underway by both government agencies and industry to advance these objectives.

    Hazardous waste, generated by many industries and businesses (e.g. dry cleaners and auto repair shops), is constituted of materials that are dangerous or potentially harmful to human health and the environment. Waste is classified as hazardous if it exhibits at least one of these four characteristics:

    • Ignitability, which refers to creation of fires under certain conditions; including materials that are spontaneously combustible or those that have a flash point less than 140 0F.
    • Corrosivity, which refers to capability to corrode metal containers; including materials with a pH less than or equal to 2 or greater than or equal to 12.5.
    • Reactivity, which refers to materials susceptible to unstable conditions such as explosions, toxic fumes, gases, or vapors when heated, compressed, or mixed with water under normal conditions.
    • Toxicity, which refers to substances that can induce harmful or fatal effects when ingested or absorbed, or inhaled.

    Radioactive Waste Regulations

    Although non-hazardous waste and hazardous waste are regulated by RCRA, nuclear or radioactive waste is regulated in accordance with the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in the United States.

    Radioactive wastes are characterized according to four categories: (1) High-level waste (HLW), (2) Transuranic waste (TRU), (3) Low-level waste (LLW), and (4) Mill tailings. Various radioactive wastes decay at different rates, but health and environmental dangers due to radiation may persist for hundreds or thousands of years.

    High-level waste is typically liquid or solid waste that results from government defense related activities or from nuclear power plants and spent fuel assemblies. These wastes are extremely dangerous due to their heavy concentrations of radionuclides, and humans must not come into contact with them.

    Transuranic waste mainly results from the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuels and from the fabrication of nuclear weapons for defense projects. They are characterized by moderately penetrating radiation and a decay time of approximately twenty years until safe radionuclide levels are achieved. Following the passage of a reprocessing ban in 1977, most of this waste generation ended. Even though the ban was lifted in 1981, Transuranic waste continues to be rare because reprocessing of nuclear fuel is expensive. Further, because the extracted plutonium may be used to manufacture nuclear weapons, political and social pressures minimize these activities.

    Low level wastes include much of the remainder of radioactive waste materials. They constitute over 80 percent of the volume of all nuclear wastes, but only about two percent of total radioactivity. Sources of Low level wastes include all of the previously cited sources of High-level waste and Transuranic waste, plus wastes generated by hospitals, industrial plants, universities, and commercial laboratories. Low level waste is much less dangerous than High-level waste, and NRC regulations allow some very low-level wastes to be released to the environment. Low level wastes may also be stored or buried until the isotopes decay to levels low enough such that it may be disposed of as non-hazardous waste. Low level wastes disposal is managed at the state level, but requirements for operation and disposal are established by the USEPA and NRC. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) is the agency in charge of setting the standards for workers that are exposed to radioactive materials.


    Modified by Kyle Whittinghill the following sources:

    16.5: Waste Regulations is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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