What next for hazardous waste management?

Written by: Aimee Postle | Published:

Seen by some as the less desirable side of waste management, hazardous waste disposal is often treated as a ‘if we really have to’ job by businesses. Here, Aimee Postle of environment and cleantech PR agency, Prova PR, advocates the importance of proper hazardous waste management, explores the differing ways in which waste can be treated and outlines what the future may hold for the sector

Government guidelines state waste is generally considered hazardous if it, or the material or substances it contains, are harmful to humans or the environment. Examples of hazardous waste include paint waste, oils, solvents, batteries and aerosols. Because of the inherent risk such material poses, it’s important that hazardous waste is treated and disposed of correctly.

Today, businesses and their hazardous waste disposal partners have several options for processing unavoidable hazardous waste. These can be boiled down to waste reuse and waste recycling.

Waste reuse is the general philosophy behind the concept of the circular economy and sees waste material repurposed as a raw material – with little need for processing. Examples include recycling chemicals and plastics, recovering valuable materials from waste electrical and electronic equipment, as well as extracting energy from waste timber, stainless steel, non-ferrous metal and slag.

All these activities help to reduce the consumption of primary raw materials and energy, to help prevent climate change.

Where possible, businesses strive to reuse materials as much as possible, thanks to the obvious cost and environmental benefits associated with the practice. However, this is not always possible.

Waste recycling differs from waste reuse in that the waste must first be treated before it can be used in a manufacturing process. How waste is treated alters from company to company, however there are a few common themes that remain across all processes.

Rendering hazardous waste harmless

The aim of all hazardous waste treatment is to modify the physical properties of the waste so that it is ultimately rendered harmless. From such materials, products can be produced like white pigments, binding agents and arable soils for the agricultural sector.

The treatment used to modify the waste depends on several factors, such as the nature of the waste and various economic/ environmental considerations. The ways and means of treating hazardous waste can be sub- divided into a number of categories, including physical, chemical and solidification.

Physical treatment involves separating the waste, before a prolonged storage period during which impurities are removed from the material. Chemical treatment seeks to neutralise the chemical properties of the waste, such as eliminating acidity or water solubility. This may entail oxidation, chemical reduction, fuel recovery or oil/water separation. The basic aim of the solidification process is to immobilise the hazardous constituents of the waste, minimising the risk of leakage when the waste is disposed.

It’s important for hazardous waste to be handled by specialists. When selecting a hazardous waste disposal partner, businesses should look for one that offers a complete end- to-end waste management service.

Treatment and disposal aside, one of the key elements of the waste hierarchy is the reduction of the waste being produced. This applies across all areas of waste production, be it domestic or industrial.

Back to basics

Forward planning and consideration of waste streams in the initial stages of manufacturing is essential if waste is to be reduced. This is also true in the case of chemical research and engineering.

Further research into the design and production of processes that minimise the use and generation of hazardous substances in the first place is a huge opportunity for the waste industry, and one I would like to see explored more deeply.

Indeed, encouraging businesses to ensure waste reduction is part of their core business model can only have a positive effect on cost efficiency and sustainability. By examining new ways to reduce the hazardous nature of products through researching and developing alternative fuels and feedstock, a more sustainable waste economy is achievable.

I’d like to see more companies look towards the future and ensure that best practice processes today secure a sustainable future for the industry for years to come.

Another way businesses can reduce waste is to separate their hazardous and non- hazardous waste. Not only does this make sense from a process point of view, it also makes sure waste producers stay on the right side of the law. Indeed, businesses that fail to properly segregate, treat or dispose of their waste now face the prospect of hefty fines or even prison sentences, as the government steps up its war on waste.

Power of partnerships

By its very nature, the waste industry is built on collaborations. Partnerships are absolutely vital to securing a bright future for the UK waste industry across the next decade. Whether on a local, national or global level, collaborations are absolutely fundamental to cover all aspects of hazardous waste management.

The waste management industry is a multiphase sector, and relies on businesses of all sizes working together to provide a cohesive and efficient process. Indeed, the different stages of the hazardous waste disposal process – i.e. collection, storage, transport, treatment and, ultimately, disposal – are highly interdependent, from a technical and organisational standpoint. An example of this is the transit of the waste, with the safe collection and transport of hazardous waste forming a critical part of the chain linking the source point of the waste and its place of treatment and disposal.

On a global scale, the effective establishment of the circular economy relies on collaborative working.

The circular economy seeks to harness the inherent value found in waste to stimulate international economic growth, boost global competitiveness and create new job opportunities. The circular economy package comprises a series of ambitious targets for waste producers, including a requirement of 65% of all municipal waste to be recycled and no more than 10% of waste to be sent to landfill. If these targets are to be reached, the government, local authorities and waste management specialists must work together.

However, it is important to remember that waste management is not an issue that is unique to the UK. Indeed, no country in Europe is capable of processing all of its own waste.

Pooling resources

One of the key cornerstones of the circular economy package is the collaborative approach it takes to delivering a comprehensive waste management solution. Achieved through pooling knowledge and insight from a variety of sectors, the circular economy is uniquely positioned to provide a joined-up approach to resource efficiency.

Building stronger working relationships at every level will open up opportunities for reciprocal new business leads for all parties involved.

Opportunity for UK businesses in larger markets It has been well reported that the amount of waste being sent to landfill is falling year-on- year. However, there is clearly still more work to be done if we are to meet the ambitious EU target of recycling 50% of household waste – not to mention ongoing work around reducing business and industrial waste. While the eventual target of zero waste to landfill seems a long way off, the UK is actually one of the better performing EU nations in terms of waste reduction. Comparing the UK to some of its EU counterparts, there is much our larger, central European neighbours could learn from our approach to hazardous waste management.

Indeed, central European member states now face the same binding legal targets and obligations as western nations when it comes to recycling, recovery and diversion of waste from landfill.

However, due to a lack of investment in infrastructure and limited market knowledge in delivering policy and legislative requirements, these countries are lagging someway behind. For example, countries including Bulgaria, Greece and Hungary still landfill up to 60% of their waste and recycle as little as 10%. While there is no doubt that, in time and with appropriate levels of investment, waste management operators in these territories will catch up, there is significant opportunity for UK companies to step into the breach and show them the way.

Looking ahead

As hazardous waste treatment and disposal processes evolve, and governments seek to implement ever-more stringent legislation, the next decade promises to be very exciting for those working within the sector.

More and more industries are beginning to wake up to the financial, operational and environmental benefits of maximising the potential of hazardous waste streams.

We must harness the opportunity and work together with government, other waste companies and industry leaders to ensure that the infrastructure, processes and, most of all, know-how are in place to ensure that no opportunity is missed.

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