2000 forecast: Source reduction

Hazardous waste management is a complicated, expensive endeavor. The direct costs associated with the storage, treatment and disposal of hazardous waste are high. The indirect costs created by the liabilities associated with mismanagement of hazardous waste are also very high. Whether or not one agrees that the current regulatory scheme is rational, there is no debate that it has created tremendous incentives to avoid generation of hazardous waste, or to at least minimize the generation of such wastes when possible. With this in mind, in the future managers will strive to reduce waste production at the source and look for more opportunities to recycle in lieu of waste disposal.

Hazardous waste avoidance and minimization
I am confident that in the future, managers will continue to tinker with their production processes in order to find ways to reduce waste creation. This could include:

  • Chemical substitution, in which a hazardous substance is replaced in the production process with a non-toxic or less hazardous substance (i.e., alternative feed stocks), or produces a more recyclable waste;
  • Improved operation and maintenance of equipment and good-housekeeping practices to minimize waste;
  • Production process redesign or modernization to generate less or no waste;
  • Product reformulation to produce an end product that requires a less waste-intensive manufacturing process or uses less toxic materials.1

    I also believe there will be greater use of the "life cycle analysis," which identifies all the environmental consequences from the production, use and disposal of products and evaluates what can be done to minimize negative impacts and maximize positive impacts over the life of a product. By looking into their production processes, managers can reduce waste at the front-end, reducing management and compliance costs, as well as minimizing possible liabilities for mismanagement of wastes.

    Hazardous waste recycling
    Much can be done through waste avoidance and minimization, but such actions alone are not a panacea. The logical partner of waste minimization is legitimate recycling. Recycling, like waste reduction, prevents pollution and is a smart alternative to waste disposal. Useful products can be produced from recycling what would otherwise be hazardous waste. However (even with recognition that it is certainly easier to criticize a regulatory scheme than develop one), the current recycling scheme is convoluted and tends to discourage recycling efforts.

    The problems with the current regime begin with some of the legal fictions associated with the regulation of recycling under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). This regulatory scheme can be arbitrary, regulating physically identical materials in a disparate manner. For example, under this regulatory scheme a "listed waste" that is identical molecule-for-molecule to a non-listed waste cannot be recycled in a similar manner. This artificial distinction is not justified by any need to protect the environment, and these legal and regulatory fictions create frustration and distrust in the regulated community.

    As we enter the future it is time to take what we have learned about recycling and change the existing regulatory scheme to better encourage legitimate recycling. We need to eliminate artificial distinctions and have a simpler, technically justifiable program that encourages environmentally protective recycling.

    The future will bring increased efforts to minimize hazardous waste at its source, and recycle as much as possible. Both are beneficial endeavors for waste generators and regulators. In order to implement these goals, industry must take the time and effort to investigate their production processes to minimize waste on the front end, and explore means to eliminate or minimize hazardous waste generation. Additionally, to foster recycling, regulators must establish more rational, objective standards for recycling and offer incentives to support legitimate recycling. A combined effort in working toward these complementary goals for limiting hazardous waste generation will benefit industry, society and the environment.


    1 Gail Achterman, JD, "Strategies for Minimizing Hazardous Wastes in Oregon," 18 Envtl. L. 901, 904 (Summer, 1988).

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  • This article originally appeared in the 01/01/2000 issue of Environmental Protection.

    About the Author

    Pamela K. Elkow, Esq., is an attorney at the Coastal Resources Management Center, Robinson & Cole LLP, Hartford, Conn. She is with the firm's LandLaw Section and members of the Center.