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Hazardous Wastes

Definitions of Hazardous Waste

Hazardous (or special) waste is a category of waste which is subject to special national and international laws and standards. There are several international agreements which are binding or non-binding for signatory states.

The general categories of waste are: municipal, industrial, mining and agriculture. Within each of these, certain substances may be sub-classified as hazardous, and therefore require separate collection, treatment, and disposal.

Hazardous waste protest
Hazardous waste is a long legacy to leave

Industrial wastes: general factory rubbish, packaging materials, organic wastes, acids, alkalis, metalliferous sludges.

Mining wastes: production process by-products, topsoil, rock and other dirt and debris, which may be contaminated by metals and coal.

Agricultural wastes: animal slurries, silage effluents, tank washings (especially after pesticide or other chemical use), empty packaging.

Non-municipal wastes include sewage sludges resulting from treatment of industrial and domestic wastes, which may be contaminated by heavy metal, organic chemicals, greases and oils.

The options for hazardous waste treatment include physical and chemical treatment, incineration, landfill, sea disposal, storage/containment, and recycling.

Waste Determination

For regulatory purposes, determining whether a substance is waste, and which category of wastes it constitutes, is an important and at times complicated process.

When waste is determined to be hazardous, the waste is subject to more stringent handling, storage, treatment and disposal requirements. This often precludes the waste being dumped in a landfill with non-hazardous solid waste.

A waste stream may be identified, through which products or other materials become waste after their useful life and use, and the various stages it passes through to its final disposal point. Waste streams are therefore useful for LCAs.


Hazardous waste
Women and children are working unprotected throughout Asia and Africa

The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, UNCED, released Agenda 21, a guideline to good environmental management for the 21st century. Chapter 19 is on 'Environmentally Sound Management of Toxic Chemicals, including Prevention of illegal International Traffic in Toxic and Dangerous Products'. Chapter 16 is on 'Environmentally Sound Management of Biotechnology'.

Chapter 19 sets out 6 programme areas:

  1. International assessment of chemical risks
  2. Harmonisation and classification of labelling of chemicals
  3. Information exchange on toxic chemicals and chemical risk
  4. Risk reduction programmes
  5. Management of chemicals
  6. Prevention of illegal international traffic in toxic and dangerous products

International Control of Hazardous Waste

There are three regimes for governing the transboundary movement of wastes under international law:

Basel Convention

1. The Basel Convention (1989) defines hazardous wastes as any category of waste listed in Annex I to the Convention, provided they possess the characteristics set out in Annex 3. The definition allows for an extension to include wastes deemed hazardous under legislation of export, import and transit parties. The Basle Convention does not apply to radioactive wastes which are subject to other international control systems.

2. The Bamako Convention (1991) defines hazardous wastes as those covered by Annex I (a combination of the Basle Convention Annexes I and II), wastes defined as hazardous by the law of the importing, exporting or transit nations, and wastes which have been banned or refused registration by government regulatory action.

3. The Lomé Convention (1989) includes wastes listed in the Basel Convention Annexes I and II, and specifically includes radioactive wastes.

Other Treaties and Conventions concerning Hazardous Substances

  • Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal, Basel, 1989.
  • Hazardous waste
    Hazardous waste: breaking ships is profitable but dangerous - heavy metals and asbestos are prevalent
  • Convention on Civil Liability for Damage Caused during Carriage of Dangerous Goods by Road, Rail, and Inland Navigation Vessels (CRTD), Geneva, 1989.
  • Convention on the ban of the Import into Africa and the Control of Transboundary Movements and Management of Hazardous Wastes within Africa, Bamako, 1991.
  • Convention on the Transboundary Effects of Industrial Accidents, Helsinki, 1992.
  • Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade, Rotterdam Convention, 1998.
  • European Agreement Concerning the International Carriage of Dangerous Goods by Inland Waterways (AND), Geneva, 2000.
  • European Agreement concerning the International Carriage of Dangerous Goods by Road (ADR), Geneva, 1957.
  • FAO International Code of Conduct on the distribution and use of Pesticides, Rome, 1985.
  • Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants Stockholm, 2001.
  • Convention to Ban the Importation into Forum Island Countries of Hazardous and Radioactive Wastes and to Control the Transboundary Movement and Management of Hazardous Wastes within the South Pacific Region, Waigani, 1995.
  • Minamata Convention on Mercury, Minamata 2013.

Applicable Law


The 1986 Mexican-US Hazardous Waste Agreement: hazardous waste is any waste designated as such by the national policies, laws and regulations, which if not handled properly may result in health or environmental damage.


RCRA, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (1976), This federal law governs the disposal of solid wastes, and makes specific provision in Subtitle C to the management of hazardous wastes.

The law seeks to establish controls from cradle to grave: generation, transportation, treatment, storage and disposal. Those involved at any of these stages are obliged to maintain strict records.


More correctly the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA). CERCLA is concerned with contaminated sites.

The act led to the founding of ATSDR, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

The act authorises the EPA to oversee the clean up of releases or potential releases of hazardous substances which can be shown to endanger public health or welfare or the natural environment. In practice, many states have their own versions of CERCLA.

The act provides a trust fund (Superfund) to cover the initial costs of clean up, and the EPA is authorised to subsequently pursue reimbursement through prosecution of those responsible, via the U.S. Department of Justice.

No unilateral administrative order exists to compel the cleanup of non-hazardous pollutants or contaminants. Waste determination is therefore of critical importance in determining which law and authority is responsible and/or empowered to act on the public's behalf.


EC law specifies hazardous waste in Directive 91/689 as non-domestic waste listed in Annexes I and II, and which have one or more properties listed in Annex III.

Reach: Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation, and Restriction of Chemicals

Download: EU toxic waste shipment regulations 2006 (pdf 1.2 MB)

The UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) has prepared recommendations on the Transport of Dangerous Goods, in the UN Model Regulations by the Committee of Experts on the Transport of Dangerous Goods. These form the basis for international agreements and national laws, and have a broad adoption among many countries. These recommendations do not cover manufacture, use or disposal of dangerous goods.

Dangerous goods (aka "hazardous materials" or "HAZMAT") are pure chemicals, mixtures, and manufactured goods, for which there are nine classes of transport hazard. A four-digit UN number is assigned to the most common dangerous goods, for international recognition. Other substances have generic codes.

Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS)

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