Hazardous Waste: Time for a change?

Hazardous material disposal suffers from that familiar South African malady of being brilliant on paper but often lacking in execution. Not all the time but sufficiently to be a concern.

Hazardous waste means any waste that contains organic or inorganic elements or compounds that may, owing to the inherent physical, chemical or taxological characteristics of that waste, have a detrimental impact on health and the environment.

Hazmat is the waste stream most dangerous to the environment, one that can literally cause disease and death. We haven’t had a Love Canal situation but we have had several cases where hazmat was illegally dumped.

The SA legislation governing hazmat is world class and includes international conventions, No less a law than the Constitution states that everyone is entitled to a clean and healthy environment. Other laws provide that only landfills classified as A grade can accept hazardous material.

South Africa’s hazourdous waste legislation is world class, but…

The landfills are the responsibility of the municipal authorities which means that some are better managed than others. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the lower grade landfills – which were not designed for hazmat – also routinely, accept hazmat.

The responsibility for disposing of hazmat is that of the owner. The general precautionary principle should be applied which means that if information is lacking the treatment method must provide for the most hazardous component of the waste. In practice this involves identifying and labelling samples and submitting Material Safety Data Sheets to the laboratory.

Once approved the hazmat must be disposed of in accordance with the laboratory’s protocol. This can range from burying in a trench with a chemical additive through a range of options – including inorganic or cyanide treatment plants, or reacting with various agents. All of these are expensive. Only thereafter can the disposal be recorded, implemented and certified.

If the hazmat is handled in accordance with these laws and regulations there is every likelihood that there will be no leakage into the environment. The problem is that this method of disposal is expensive – some would say ridiculously expensive. As a result hazmat is often dumped on unlicensed sites or abandoned in factories and plots until it becomes someone else’s problem.

Hazmat disposal is expensive, which leads to it being dumped on unlicenced sites

Apart from the cost the other impediments to following the correct procedures are the time and effort involved and a lack of knowledge. Larger companies who can afford Health & Safety officers can afford to pay and have systems in place to deal with the process of identifying and dealing with hazmat. The Health & Safety officer should know what material is hazardous or how to find out.

Smaller organizations often don’t have the resources to sample and deal with the waste and certainly don’t want to pay the costs involved. A majority of organizations appear to be unaware of the legislative requirements and many will at best pay lip service to the regulations. Hazmat materials are routinely disposed of as general waste. This is an unintentional breach of the law.

It is when the transgressor is aware of the legislation and the high cost of complying that one finds intentional flouting of the law. Hazmat is often conveyed as general waste to unregistered landfills where the officials on duty do not recognize the material which may be hidden under other material. In some cases officials can also be paid to look the other way. A lack of enforcement resources fuels the problem.

The solution – possibly a new model where the cost structure is turned on its head; hazmat is cheap to dispose of and garden clippings are expensive? That way the hazmat can at least get to the correct landfill where it can be treated.

Recycle Reg
Smart Waste

Picture: Pexels/TomFisk