There has been much misinformation on toxic waste. Many believe it to be a general term used interchangeably with hazardous waste. Even The American Heritage New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition and Wikipedia have definitions similar to this. However, these definitions do not align with how the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) classifies toxic waste.
To understand how the USEPA defines toxic waste let’s start by visiting the USEPA webpage for basic information on wastes, and try to find a reference for the term toxic waste. There is no reference to toxic waste, but there are numerous references to hazardous waste. It is even in big bold print and has links to a separate hazardous waste web page.
The reason there is no reference to toxic waste on these pages is because the people writing the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) regulations chose to use the term hazardous waste to define all the waste materials with properties that make it dangerous or potentially harmful to human health or the environment.
So how is the term toxic waste used by the USEPA?
If you look closely back at the USEPA’s hazardous waste page under the characteristic waste bullet point for toxicity, you will find:
“Toxic waste are harmful or fatal when ingested or absorbed (e.g., containing mercury, lead, etc.). When toxic wastes are land disposed, contaminated liquid may leach from the waste and pollute the groundwater.”
This means toxic wastes are actually a subcategory of the RCRA term hazardous waste and include only a small number of USEPA designated waste codes used to classify waste characteristically hazardous due to toxicity. Other waste, called listed hazardous waste, can also be hazardous because of toxicity or other characteristics, but are not classified as toxic waste per the RCRA regulations. As derived by calculations from data taken from The National Biennial RCRA Hazardous Waste Report (Based on 2011 Data), more than 16,500,000 tons of hazardous waste generated in the U.S. in 2011 did not contain the characteristic toxicity codes found in RCRA, so therefore do not meet the strict RCRA description of toxic waste.
So the next time you see or hear the term toxic waste, maybe you should wonder, is this term being used in the general sense definition; that is, as an interchangeable word for hazardous waste? Or, is it being used in accordance with RCRA terminology, as a reference to a subgroup of hazardous waste that is characteristically hazardous due to toxicity? To read more about hazardous waste, characteristic waste, toxicity, and toxic waste per RCRA, go to http://www.epa.gov/epawaste/basic-hazard.htm.