Get the Terminology Right: Hazardous vs. Toxic Waste

scientists getting sample from toxic wasteThe public often uses the words “hazardous” and “toxic” interchangeably when referring to dangerous waste. The terms are synonymous with each other when taken literally, but that’s not the case with the environmental industry. They are, in fact, distinct from one another.

Envirocareusa.com, a leading firm in waste management and disposal, notes the difficulties in keeping up with a changing regulatory environment and meeting waste disposal requirements. An incorrectly used term, therefore, might cause complications for industry workers.

Hazardous vs. Toxic

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines hazardous wastes as any solid waste that poses a threat to environmental safety and human health. This includes garbage, sludge, and chemical wastes. Industrial sectors generate a large amount of hazardous wastes in the country, although household items contribute as well.

Different hazardous wastes require different treatment standards. These depend on the waste’s characteristic, subcategories, and disposal method.

Toxic wastes, on the other hand, are one of the four hazardous waste characteristics. Ignitable waste, corrosive waste, and reactive waste make up the other three characteristics. Wastes that are characterized as toxic are further divided into three types — organics, pesticides, and metals.

In short, all toxic wastes are hazardous wastes, but not all hazardous wastes are toxic. Similarly, all hazardous wastes are solid wastes, but the opposite is not entirely true.

Solid Waste Regulation and Exclusion

Interestingly, not all discarded materials are solid wastes. Insufficient data, laws, public policies, and other factors influence waste classification. For instance, under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), domestic sewage and shredded circuit boards are not considered solid wastes. Additionally, used oil filters and chlorofluorocarbon refrigerants, while considered solid wastes, are exempted as hazardous wastes. They are, thus, not regulated.

Despite this, the US produced a total of 258.5 million tons of municipal solid waste or everyday garbage in 2014. All that waste came from residential, commercial, and institutional properties. The RCRA and EPA have imposed a cradle-to-grave system so that hazardous waste generators would be more involved and attentive to how the waste they produce is disposed of or recycled.

Knowing and using the right terminology is a step towards greater awareness about current environmental issues. Greater awareness, in turn, can help you be more proactive in waste management and disposal.