Background Material on Hazardous Waste

Hazardous waste is any waste that may be considered toxic, flammable (i.e. burns readily), corrosive, reactive, or explosive.  Many types of businesses produce hazardous waste.  Some are small businesses such as dry cleaners, auto repair shops, hospitals, and photo processing centers.  Others are larger firms that may generate large quantities of hazardous waste, such as chemical manufacturers, electroplating companies, and petroleum refineries.

The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) is the main Federal law that regulates hazardous and other wastes to ensure that they are managed properly.  RCRA waste is solid waste assigned a federal hazardous waste code and regulated by RCRA either because it was managed subject to RCRA permitting standards or because it was shipped subject to RCRA hazardous transportation requirements.  EPA has a list of specific hazardous wastes, defined by 504 different waste codes.  Not all hazardous waste is RCRA waste.

Information on hazardous wastes comes from the Federal EPA's Biennial Reporting System (BRS), which contains data from Hazardous Waste Report Forms submitted by regulated hazardous waste generators and handlers.   BRS represents the only nationally consistent reporting of information on hazardous waste generation and management activities in the United States. Although the information collected is not designed to measure environmental impact, it is the most comprehensive source available for information on the management and generation of hazardous wastes. The data are collected every other year.

Some hazardous wastes are not picked up in the BRS database.  Hazardous wastes that are generated in the home, such as mineral spirits and old paint, are not regulated by the federal RCRA program.  In addition, not all hazardous waste generators are required to report, some waste is exempted from regulation, and some waste is regulated under other environmental statutes (particularly at the state level).  Some facilities may fail to report.

RCRA data for this project were taken from the original BRS database. This database is no longer posted on the EPA’s web site, but it can be accessed through the Right To Know Network web site.   The 1990 county population data are taken from a US Census Bureau web site.

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