Toxic waste, a subset of hazardous waste, is defined by its potential for causing harm to human health if it is inhaled, ingested, or absorbed through the skin, so it’s very important to dispose of these hazardous substances properly. Under federal law, toxic waste created through industrial processes or even in the home must be:

  • Stored in sealed containers
  • Clearly labeled as toxic waste
  • Transported to designated facilities for recycling, reuse, treatment, incineration, or burial

The precise disposal requirements can vary depending on the type and volume of toxic waste.

Where to Take Toxic Waste

Individuals can usually transport household toxic waste products such as batteries, paint, pesticides, car oil, and electronic goods to a household hazardous waste collection point.

Businesses generally pay a hazardous waste management company to transport toxic waste to a hazardous waste disposal facility on their behalf.

What Counts as Toxic Waste?

Toxicity is one of the four hazardous waste characteristics defined by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for regulated disposal. The other three hazardous waste characteristics are:

  • Ignitability
  • Reactivity
  • Corrosivity

Within the “toxicity” label, there are a further 39 codes that specify the kinds of toxic waste and how concentrated a toxic waste product must be to qualify for regulated disposal. While some kinds of toxic waste—dangerous pathogens and radioactive waste—aren’t listed with a code, they are still considered toxic and must be disposed of as hazardous wastes.

Some of the most well-known toxic materials include heavy metals, pesticides, and solvents:

  • Arsenic – D-004
  • Barium – D-005
  • Cadmium – D-006
  • Chromium – D-007
  • Lead – D-008
  • Mercury – D-009
  • Selenium – D-010
  • Silver – D-011
  • Benzene – D-018
  • Chloroform – D-022
  • Nitrobenzene – D-036
  • Pyridine – D-038
  • Vinyl chloride – D-043

To qualify as toxic waste, the toxic substances must be present at a certain concentration in the carrier liquid. For example, a liquid must contain 5.0 mg/L of arsenic or 0.2 mg/L of mercury to be regulated as toxic waste. The Toxicity Characteristic Leaching Procedure (TCLP) is used to determine concentration parameters.

Examples of Toxic Waste

One might think that most toxic material is used and produced on worksites covered in warning signs. However, most households and businesses produce at least small amounts of toxic waste.

In California’s growing cannabis industry, for example:

  • Growers might use pesticides, insecticides, and herbicides that contain benzene.
  • Processors might pack their cannabis buds in glass that contains arsenic.
  • Vape pen and e-nail manufacturers may have leftover chromium wire from the manufacture of vape pens and e-nails.
  • Testing laboratories may use a small amount of chloroform as a solvent.

Because so many toxic chemicals are used for industrial production in addition to restricted plant materials like cannabis, cannabis businesses often rely on specialized hazardous cannabis waste management companies to make sure each waste product is disposed of in accordance with the law.

How to Store Toxic Wastes for Disposal

As soon as toxic wastes are generated, they must be placed in sealed containers and taken to a designated hazardous waste storage area. When storing toxic waste:

  • The container must be sealed, leakproof, and made from a material that doesn’t react with the contents.
  • The container must be labeled with the specific contents, hazard class, and waste accumulation start date.
  • The container must be held in secondary containment (such as a drip tray) and separated from non-compatible waste types.
  • The waste can only be stored up to the applicable time and quantity limits. These limits are determined by your generator category (very small quantity, small quantity, large quantity).

Toxic Waste Transportation

Before the time or quantity limit is reached, businesses should contact a licensed hazardous waste transportation company to pick up the toxic waste and transport it to a hazardous waste management facility.

When the hazardous waste is given to the transporter and again when it reaches the treatment facility, the contents of the shipment must be documented on a hazardous waste manifest form, which is signed, dated, and the details entered into an electronic tracking system.

What Happens to Toxic Waste?

You know what to do with toxic waste, but how is toxic waste disposed of once it reaches a hazardous waste facility? The options as far as how to treat hazardous waste really depend on the kinds of hazardous waste involved.

Many hazardous wastes—including some toxic wastes—can be purified and used again. Other hazardous materials can be rendered non-toxic in land treatment units or otherwise neutralized for safe disposal in regular landfills. Organic wastes that don’t let off toxic fumes can be burned as fuel.

Toxic substances that can’t be reused, recycled, neutralized, or incinerated are sometimes buried in hazardous waste landfills that are double-lined and capped with non-porous clay. These “brown sites” can then be reallocated for industrial or commercial use.

Why Proper Toxic Waste Disposal Matters

Before the 1970s, toxic chemicals and other hazardous wastes were simply dumped into regular landfills, rivers, rainwater sewers, or the ocean. This led to the formation of several uncontrolled hazardous waste sites in the United States that have taken millions of dollars to clean up.

In the 1970s, hazardous waste regulations were introduced with the Clean Water Act in 1972 and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act in 1976, which was implemented by the EPA. Now, businesses have to follow hazardous waste disposal regulations and send their toxic waste to hazardous waste disposal facilities.

Cradle-to-Grave Responsibility

According to the RCRA, businesses that generate toxic waste are considered to have a cradle-to-grave responsibility for toxic waste. That means that even after handing over toxic waste to a transporter and signing the waste manifest, generators are still technically responsible for the waste and its effects on the environment.

Because of this huge responsibility, it’s a good idea to consult with a hazardous waste disposal professional or outsource toxic waste disposal to a licensed hazardous waste management company. These companies can take care of your industrial hygiene and wastewater responsibilities and help you prevent fines for improper disposal.

Toxic Waste Management Works

When you understand everything that goes into the proper disposal of toxic waste, the whole process might seem like a lot of work. However, once you have identified the toxic waste products that are generated in your home or business and set up a system to deal with them, it ends up being fairly straightforward.

The best part of understanding how toxic waste is disposed of is that you can prevent accidents in the workplace and avoid paying fines for non-compliance. Those fines can be a lot more expensive than utilizing hazardous waste management services from the start, so it pays to stay on top of your hazardous waste obligations.