A cautionary tale of hazardous wastes

Ian Martin, general manager of the waste treatment division of Waste Recycling Group, highlights some of the changes to the treatment and disposal of hazardous wastes that will impact on many businesses within the next year.

The end of 2003 and early 2004 will see substantial changes to the definition of hazardous wastes and their subsequent treatment and disposal. These changes will shape hazardous waste management for the foreseeable future and will start to bring the UK in line with Western Europe. Unfortunately, many waste producers are insufficiently aware of the changes that are coming.

It is also apparent that the waste management industry is not confident of the ability or willingness of local and national government to effectively implement and enforce legislation and to license the essential facilities. The activities of rogue operators, intense competition and public disquiet (sometimes justified, sometimes not) means that the business of dealing with hazardous waste is itself hazardous. Investment decisions require confidence that the business offers worthwhile returns, confidence that does not currently exist.

In the beginning

A string of regulation has sought to define hazardous wastes. The 1975 Directive on Waste aimed to provide a common definition of waste within the European Community, as it then was, in order to ensure the safe handling of wastes and to reduce the overall quantity and potential hazards of waste. The 1991 Hazardous Waste Directive produced a European wide definition of hazardous wastes based on the properties listed in Table 1. The subsequent Hazardous Waste List (HWL) was incorporated in the 1996 Special Waste Regulations for the UK. The European Waste Catalogue introduced in 1994 created a common list of all wastes. The catalogue was amended in 2000 and 2001 to produce the European Waste Catalogue 2002 (EWC), which incorporates a revised and extended list of hazardous wastes to be used by the nation states of the European Union.

In the European Waste Catalogue 2002, wastes are catalogued and grouped by generic industry, process or waste type. Each waste type has a six figure classification. For example:

08 – wastes from the manufacture, formulation, supply and use of coatings (inks, varnishes and vitreous enamels), adhesives, sealants and printing inks,

08 01 11* – waste paint and varnish containing organic solvents and other dangerous substances,

08 01 12 – waste paint and varnish other than those mentioned in 08 01 11

08 01 21* – waste paint or varnish remover.

Wastes types highlighted with an asterisk are considered hazardous. Wastes not highlighted are non-hazardous. Where the description of a hazardous waste does not refer to specific waste components or ‘other dangerous substances,’ as in 08 01 21, these are absolute entries and indicate the waste is always hazardous. Where the description mentions particular components or has the phrase ‘other dangerous substances’ as in 08 01 11, there is a second non-hazardous mirror entry in the catalogue, in this case, 08 01 12. If the waste does not contain the dangerous substances (in quantities) as to be hazardous then the non-hazardous entry is applicable. Where information on the presence of dangerous substances is not known, the hazardous classification must be used.

What does this mean?

Full implementation of the new EWC is not expected until late 2003 / early 2004. Once implemented, the existing Special Waste system will result in producers having to re-classify their wastes. Wastes identified by absolute entries will automatically be categorised as hazardous wastes. If the waste is listed as hazardous and has a mirror entry then the appropriate classification, hazardous or non-hazardous, must be determined. This can be achieved with knowledge of the chemical composition and properties of the waste and by reference to the Approved Supply List (7th Edition) (ASL) which details chemical hazards. It will be an offence to classify a hazardous waste as non hazardous.

The definition of hazardous waste is broader than the current Special Waste legislation due to two factors. The first is absolute entries, where in the past concentration dictated whether such wastes were hazardous on an individual waste composition basis, this is no longer the case; an absolute entry is always hazardous waste even if very dilute. The second is changes to the previous edition of the ASL (used for the definition of special waste).

The changes to the ASL are significant and have perhaps been overlooked by many waste producers who may not be involved in the supply of packaged goods. For example, many of the most common chromium, copper, lead, manganese, nickel and zinc compounds are now considered dangerous for the environment and are therefore potentially ecotoxic (H14) hazardous wastes. Such compounds are common constituents of incinerator bottom ashes, sewage sludge ashes, filter cakes, fly ashes, air pollution control solids, soils, vehicle fragmentiser wastes and similar materials.

Any waste listed as hazardous and containing 2500mg/kg (i.e. 0.25 per cent) or more of components classed as dangerous for the environment will be hazardous waste. The need to apply a precautionary approach means that where the chemical form of the relevant metals is unknown but the total concentration(s) exceeds this threshold, then the waste must be classified as hazardous. For example, a waste containing a mixture of zinc hydroxide and sulphate at a concentration of 5000mg/kg is hazardous if the zinc as sulphate is above 2500mg/kg but not if the zinc as hydroxide is above 2500 mg/kg. This is because zinc sulphate is defined in the ASL as dangerous for the environment, while zinc hydroxide is not.

If a waste is hazardous and is intended for landfill, then further impact of implementing the Landfill Directive will produce the triple whammy of:

  • more waste now being conconsidered hazardous;

  • all hazardous waste destined for landfill must be handled at a dedicated hazardous waste landfill; and

  • all wastes for hazardous waste landfill must be pre-treated to meet strict acceptance criteria.

The Landfill Directive

From July 2004 the co-disposal of hazardous solid wastes with municipal wastes will end, and new forms of hazardous waste landfill will develop. Such landfills will need to meet much more stringent requirements of siting, engineering, operation and waste acceptance than previously. The unpopularity of such sites as neighbours, together with higher development and operational costs, will restrict their number.

Perhaps only 40 such sites will replace the current 200 or so co-disposal sites. Many of these ‘new’ sites will be dedicated, in-house operations, processing a limited number of waste streams generated at the associated production site.

Hazardous waste landfills that are established will be of two forms: Hazardous waste sites only accepting treated hazardous wastes, and sites for municipal wastes with dedicated cells for a very restricted range of treated ‘stable’, hazardous wastes.

Wastes will have to be treated to meet waste acceptance criteria so as to be acceptable for landfill at either type of site.

Waste Acceptance Criteria (WAC) agreed in December 2002 by the EU define what treated wastes may be placed in a hazardous waste landfill. The criteria are strict and generally relate to the quantity of a particular parameter leached from the waste. There is also a concentration limit on organic content aimed at ensuring that, once landfilled, the waste has little or no potential to generate methane.

If treatment has not produced a material capable of meeting these criteria, the waste cannot be landfilled and further treatment must be undertaken or an alternative disposal route found.

Developing waste treatment capacity

While the UK has a well established waste treatment industry comprising consultants, brokers, specialist equipment and merchant treatment facilities, the need to meet the WAC for landfill of treated residues is a new requirement.

Traditionally, treatment has been of gaseous and liquid wastes to produce a solid for landfill, but the new regime requires the treatment of solid wastes. This will require a whole new set of equipment and techniques, the provision of which will require significant capital spend, business risk and time. Techniques which will need to be introduced (or re-introduced) in the UK will include soil and ash washing, chemical fixation (solidification/stabilisation), drying for inorganic wastes. For organic wastes, techniques will include industrial composting, chemical or physico-chemical oxidation (e.g. ozone, wet air, supercritical), as well as more incinerators (themselves producing residues which will require treatment). On the current implementation date of 17th July 2004 this will be a challenge.

Changes to EA siting policies for landfills mean that it is going to be difficult to develop hazardous waste landfills in many areas of the country. Wastes will inevitably have to travel further for treatment and disposal. For some waste types, treatment facilities will be difficult to establish in the short time available.

Organic waste that will be particularly affected includes used absorbents, adhesives, detergents, oil sludges and paints, all of which will suffer from a shortage of specialist incineration capacity and few alternatives. The cement and lime kilns that could provide a (energy) recovery route for these materials have severe regulatory hurdles to overcome, as well as easier wastestreams to accept in order to meet their energy needs. Aqueous liquid wastes which may have high proportions of soluble organics will become a problem for existing waste treatment processes. Filter cakes produced from treating such wastes will contain soluble organics that can leach and therefore potentially fail the acceptance criteria.

Such cakes may also suffer from the leaching of chlorides resulting from the neutralisation of hydrochloric acid – one of the most common industrial acids in use. Wastes such as bottom ashes, fly ashes, sewage sludge ashes, if hazardous, will also be problematic to treat due to the presence of chlorides.

It is a frightening indictment of our legislative enforcement practices that it is much more likely (and expensive for the operator) for a landfill site to be targeted over a litter escape in gale force winds than it is for an indiscriminate fly tipper of hazardous waste (and a careless waste producer) to be prosecuted. Perhaps the concept of best practicable environmental option should be extended to how we enforce regulations?

Hazardous waste quantities

The changes required must happen. Whilst the timetables are tight and there are some steep learning curves and many uncertainties, the changes will take place. Hazardous waste quantities will increase (albeit from waste previously not considered or defined as hazardous). In the short term, the lack of facilities, the few operators willing to address the challenges and the specific techniques required means that costs will significantly increase. Treatment and disposal costs akin to those in Europe of £60-100/T, exclusive of any government levy, may well become the norm for hazardous wastes.

In time, these higher costs should result in more waste minimisation. However, it is also just as likely that chemical and manufacturing industries will reduce waste management costs by moving abroad or simply closing.

By the time this article is published the Government Hazardous Waste Forum will have sat for its second meeting. We hope in time to hear the Government announce that it will:

  • Adopt a strategic approach to ensure that the hazardous waste treatment and disposal infrastructure is in place on a regional basis to support the needs of the UK and its industry.

  • Underwrite investment in hazardous waste treatment and disposal facilities so as to provide the confidence for the establishment of the required facilities.

  • Ensure that the required permissions, be it planning or licensing, are handled in a rational and speedy manner.

  • Allow the incorporation of EU practices into the UK without the delays associated with ‘research and trials’ of technologies and techniques which are common practice elsewhere.

  • Rigorously pursue and prosecute individuals, whether waste producers or waste ‘management’ operators, who deliberately mishandle hazardous waste in pursuit of lower costs or an easy profit.

  • That these actions will be substantially in place before Autumn 2003.

In ensuring the above, the business environment will be established so that competent waste management companies will provide the required skills and funds to build and operate the necessary facilities. Surprisingly enough, given the tendency for the Government and its agencies to turn to consultants for reports and studies, the major waste management companies know where the waste is, what it is and how to deal with it – we just need some confidence that we are not wasting our money and time.

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