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August 03, 2014
Determining Whether Your Waste is Hazardous
By Elizabeth M Dickinson, JD, Senior Legal Editor - EHS

The most frequently asked question on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s website is “What is a hazardous waste?” The reason the answer is so important is because it’s at the heart of the RCRA regulations for handlers of hazardous waste.

Generators and owners/operators of treatment, storage and disposal facilities (TSDFs) cannot begin to comply with the myriad of RCRA hazardous waste regulations until they have taken the first step of properly identifying and characterizing the wastes that are generated, treated, stored, or disposed of at their facility. The determination of whether a waste is hazardous is accomplished through waste analysis and/or knowledge of the waste.

Waste analysis involves identifying and verifying the chemical and physical characteristics and composition of a waste by performing a detailed chemical and physical analysis of a representative sample of the waste. Alternatively, a facility may apply knowledge of the waste in lieu of conducting such analyses.

Proper waste analysis is needed primarily to:

  • Determine whether the waste is considered hazardous under applicable federal and state requirements.
  • Classify the waste according to RCRA.
  • Ensure that the waste is managed properly.

To be considered a hazardous waste, a material first must be classified as a solid waste. The EPA defines “solid waste” as garbage, refuse, sludge, or other discarded material (including solids, semisolids, liquids, and contained gaseous materials). If a waste is deemed solid waste, the next step is to determine whether the RCRA regulations specifically exclude the waste from RCRA regulation. If the waste cannot match either a solid waste or hazardous waste exclusion as specified in 40 CFR 261.4, a further determination must be made as to whether the solid waste is hazardous waste.

The EPA defines a waste as hazardous if it is specifically named on one of four lists of hazardous wastes located in Subpart D of 40 CFR 261 (i.e., an F, K, P, or U waste) or if it exhibits one of four characteristics as described in Subpart C of 40 CFR 261 (i.e., is a characteristic waste).

If, after a hazardous waste determination has been made, the waste does not qualify as a hazardous waste, the RCRA hazardous waste laws and regulations do not apply to the management of that waste. If, however, the waste is deemed hazardous, the RCRA rules that are in place in order to ensure the safe management of the hazardous waste come very much into play.

EPA guidance documents that you may find helpful in determining a waste’s status are:


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