Audit, Compliance and Risk Blog

How Can Hazardous Wastes Be Treated?

Posted by Jon Elliott on Mon, Jan 26, 2015 a facility determines it has generated hazardous waste, it must determine how to manage that waste in compliance with the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976 (RCRA), regulations issued by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and their state equivalents. (I recently wrote about hazardous waste determination, here and here).

How Does RCRA Define Treatment?

One set of waste management activities involve hazardous waste treatment.  RCRA and EPA’s regulations provide the following definition:

“’[T]reatment,’ when used in connection with hazardous waste, means any method, technique, or process, including neutralization, designed to change the physical, chemical, or biological character or composition of any hazardous waste so as to neutralize such waste or so as to render such waste nonhazardous, safer for transport, amenable for recovery, amenable for storage, or reduced in volume. Such term includes any activity or processing designed to change the physical form or chemical composition of hazardous waste so as to render it nonhazardous.” [emphasis added]

Without these limitations, someone can change the physical or chemical properties so the waste will no longer qualify as “hazardous” when subjected to one of EPA’s tests for characteristics – diluting waste with water until it’s no longer ignitable, for example.  Or they might mix it with something to balance its pH (acidity or corrosivity), or dry it out to produce a smaller and more transportable material.  RCRA is not set up to prevent such treatment, but is set up to ensure that regulators get to evaluate the process and associated procedures in order to ensure they’re appropriate. These general restrictions are reinforced by the Mixture Rule and Derived-From Rule: EPA considers most mixtures that contain a hazardous waste as one constituent to be hazardous waste, and considers most materials derived from hazardous waste (ash from combustion, for example) to be hazardous waste.

Which Treatment Activities Are Exempt?

Hazardous waste treatment generally requires a permit—the most common are called “treatment, storage and disposal (TSD) facility permits.”  However, RCRA and EPA’s regulations provide exemption from the TSD permit requirement, for the following:

  • A facility permitted, licensed, or registered by a State to manage municipal or industrial solid waste, if the only hazardous waste it manages are from conditionally exempt small quantity generators (CESQGs, which are facilities that generate no more than 100 kg per month of hazardous waste.)

  • A facility managing recyclable materials in compliance with applicable requirements.

  • A farmer disposing of waste pesticides from its own use in compliance with special RCRA requirements.

  • Operation of a totally enclosed treatment facility (i.e., a treatment process that is directly connected to an industrial production process, and constructed and operated to prevent the release of any hazardous waste or any constituent into the environment during treatment).

  • Qualifying elementary neutralization units.

  • Treatment during a release or imminent release of hazardous waste.

  • Addition of absorbent material to waste or of waste to absorbent material, into a container at the time waste is first placed in the container, if other hazardous waste management requirements are met.

Note that states may narrow or further limit these exemptions.

What Activities Does RCRA Consider To Be Treatment?

A wide range of activities may be considered to be treatment.  These include applications of physical, chemical, and biological procedures to change the wastes.

Physical changes can include:

  • Crushing or compacting to reduce volume.

  • Grinding.

  • Phase separation by filtration, centrifugation, or gravity settling or heating to facilitate dehydration or drive off other volatiles.

  • Separation based on differences in physical properties such as size, magnetism, or density.

  • Precipitation or crystallization.

  • Reverse osmosis.

  • Evaporation.

  • Distillation.

  • Photodegradation using ultraviolet light.

  • Magnetic separation.

  • Screening, sieving or filtering to separate components by size.

Chemical changes can include:

  • Neutralization or pH adjustment that does not qualify for exemption.

  • Ion exchange.

  • Precipitation or crystallization.

  • Metallic replacement.

  • Plating the metal onto an electrode.

  • Electrodialysis.

  • Electrowinning or electrolytic recovery.

  • Chemical stabilization using silicates and/or cementitious reactions.

  • Rinsing with a suitable liquid capable of dissolving or removing hazardous constituents.

  • Absorption.

Biological processes can include:

  • Biological processes with naturally occurring microorganisms.

Self-Assessment Checklist

Does the organization generate wastes that it has determine qualify as “hazardous wastes” under RCRA (and/or applicable state hazardous laws and regulations)?

Does the organization apply any processes or procedures to any hazardous wastes, which are designed to change either of the following:

  • Any physical characteristics of the waste.

  • Any chemical characteristics of the waste.

If so, has the organization evaluated each such waste management procedure to determine if it is considered “hazardous waste treatment” under applicable RCRA (or state) regulation?

Does any hazardous waste treatment process qualify for an available exemption from regulation?

Where Can I Go For More Information?

Specialty Technical Publishers (STP) provides a variety of single-law and multi-law services, intended to facilitate clients’ understanding of and compliance with requirements. These include:

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About the Author Elliott is President of Touchstone Environmental and has been a major contributor to STP’s product range for over 25 years. He was involved in developing 16 existing products, including Environmental Compliance: A Simplified National Guide and The Complete Guide to Environmental Law.

Mr. Elliott has a diverse educational background. In addition to his Juris Doctor (University of California, Boalt Hall School of Law, 1981), he holds a Master of Public Policy (Goldman School of Public Policy [GSPP], UC Berkeley, 1980), and a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering (Princeton University, 1977).

Mr. Elliott is active in professional and community organizations. In addition, he is a past chairman of the Board of Directors of the GSPP Alumni Association, and past member of the Executive Committee of the State Bar of California's Environmental Law Section (including past chair of its Legislative Committee).

You may contact Mr. Elliott directly at:

photo credit: Theen ... via photopin cc

Tags: Corporate Governance, Health & Safety, Environmental, EHS, EPA, Hazcom, RCRA