Keeping a lid on hazardous waste

Hazardous waste is piling up, and despite best intentions, toxic material is unwittingly released into the environment. Technology and science will solve the problem, but waste producers must come to the table.

New trends and the changing consumer tastes of the global middle class, keep factories busy, bumping up manufacturing outputs. Shoppers have never had so many choices. But the pattern is responsible for a mounting pile of waste, as manufacturers deal with the by-products of production and consumers continue to, well, consume.

A growing proportion of waste is hazardous, which means that it’s recognised as potentially harmful to both the environment and people and can cause or significantly contribute to increasing illness and even death.

Manufacturing and industrial sectors are some of the biggest producers of hazardous waste, with paints, solvents, metals, and a range of industrial by-products demanding special treatment to keep them from contaminating the environment.

But big business isn’t the only source of hazardous material. Despite marked improvements in recycling, New Zealand’s city councils report a rising presence of hazardous waste, with needles, syringes and other medical waste, never mind the hundreds of supermarket bags full of dog poo, turning up in recycling bins.

Agriculture is another significant contributor through the application and disposal of sprays and pesticides. Recently, glyphosate, the active ingredient in a weed spray used in New Zealand for decades (often under the brand Roundup), attracted closer examination, when Roundup manufacturer Monsanto was ordered to pay $NZ440 million in damages to a cancer-affected school caretaker who often used their product.

Too little, too late

Despite government regulations and growing concern among businesses and households, some hazardous wastes are unwittingly released into the environment. The long term impact of new chemicals introduced to manufacturing processes and waste management are sometimes little understood and it can take decades before harmful impacts surface, by which time it is too late to remediate contaminated ground and water.

Introduced in 1930s, per and poly fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) were introduced to various applications, ranging from non-stick, stain and water-resistant coatings to firefighting foams. By the 1970s PFAS was the dominant means of waterproofing fabrics and non-stick coatings for cookware, with their chemical cousin PTFE the go-to ingredient for coating paper and other substrates used in food packaging to repel oil, grease and moisture.        

Although many industries, including manufacturers of firefighting foams, have phased out PFAS in favour of fluorine-free alternatives, we continue to deal with their toxic legacy. Recent reports show PFAS from firefighting foam contaminants was found in eels in two south Taranaki streams and in groundwater at five other sites, which highlights environmental bio-accumulation and lingering toxicity. People are affected too, with Ohakea farmer Andy Russell one of at least 13 people being tested for PFAS, who live or work close to the local air force base where firefighting foam was used historically

Hazardous waste pile set to grow

US industry research firm Inkwood Research estimates that the global hazardous waste management market is expected to grow at a compound annual rate of six percent until 2026.

Continued growth is a function of increasing volumes of hazardous materials used by industry, coupled with more stringent regulations and growing public interest in better management.

But moves to regulate and improve hazardous waste management present a new set of problems. Specialised processes to capture and process hazardous materials are complex and expensive. Different types of waste require individual chemical or biological processing to render them harmless, limiting opportunities for standard approaches to management.

In response, both hazardous waste processors and producers are putting more thought to reuse strategies that design ‘disassembly’ into products. The emerging development, known as eco-design, attempts to return products to the original manufacturer for disassembly. The return of toner cartridges to printer companies is a good example. Manufactures are also exploring the potential of waste exchanges, where a company that produces waste sells or delivers it to another organisation, which subsequently uses it in their own production processes.

EnviroWaste is doing great work on this front, in one case capturing and purifying caustic soda (sodium hydroxide) used in industrial cleaning for re-use in other processes. We’re also developing filtration techniques to make contaminated water safe – a technique that can even deal with PFAS contamination. EnviroWaste also holds New Zealand’s only permit for the destruction of PFAS materials by incineration, which is carried out at a purpose-built hazardous waste facility in France.

Ask questions

Managing hazardous waste is a big and growing business. However, the capital and skills required to do the job properly and compliantly limit the pool of companies capable of operating in this space. But that isn’t stopping all-comers attempting to capture a slice of the market. And like any emerging market, a handful of unscrupulous operators who think nothing of illegal dumping end up tainting an entire sector.

Ask the hard questions of your waste management provider: Where will the waste end up? Do they have qualified staff to handle the classification of waste? Do they hold WorkSafe’s location compliance certificate? What can be done to re-use or extract value from your waste?

Shrinking the pile of hazardous waste requires new skills and specialist approaches involving close cooperation between waste processors and producers. More thought now will save the next generation from paying a terrible price for our lack of care and foresight.  

By Brendan Redmond, ChemWaste Auckland Branch Manager

EnviroNZ’s brands are EnviroWaste, ChemWaste, EnviroWay and EnviroEarth

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