Cradle-to-grave waste management is a long-term waste management process designed to reduce the amount of waste generated and ensure that hazardous waste is stored, transported and disposed of appropriately.

It requires waste generators to manage their waste across its whole lifecycle — from the ‘cradle,’ when the waste is produced, to the ‘grave’ when it is disposed of.

Any company that generates hazardous waste should be aware of the general rules that apply to cradle-to-grave waste management, starting with the legislation that created it.

The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) 1976

Prior to RCRA, waste management was left to a patchwork of local regulators and private initiatives. With little regulation, a lot of hazardous material was dumped dangerously — such that the EPA is still cleaning a lot of it up. In the meantime, it polluted groundwater, drinking water, farmland and wildlife, causing health and environmental problems.

In response, Congress passed RCRA. It defines hazardous waste, clarifies possible exemptions from this classification, assigns responsibility for hazardous waste, and lays out a ‘cradle-to-grave’ waste management process.

What is hazardous waste?

RCRA defines hazardous waste as a solid waste, not exempt from classification as hazardous, that is listed as a characteristic waste (more on waste classification here).

hazardous waste identification process diagram


This bears clarification, because some of these terms use legal rather than common-sense meanings.

1: Solid waste

Solid waste is not necessarily physically solid. It can be wastewater sludge, or even contain gas. It’s defined as any discarded material that is:

  • Abandoned. This means burned, incinerated, sham-recycled, or disposed of.
  • Inherently waste-like. These materials are so dangerous that they are always considered hazardous waste, like dioxin-containing wastes.
  • Discarded military munitions that have been fired, declared unfit, deteriorated into nonrecyclability or abandoned.
  • Recycled in certain specific ways covered by Code of Federal Regulations 261.4a.

2: Excluded from the definition

Some wastes are excluded from the definition of solid wastes under 40 CFR section 261.4(a). These include:

  • Domestic sewage
  • Irrigation return flow
  • Radioactive waste
  • Hazardous secondary materials from the petroleum refining industry
  • Used cathode-ray tubes

This type of exemption also covers some material that is generated by cleanup or to be reused, such as:

  • Solvent-contaminated wipes from cleanup
  • Hazardous secondary material generated and reclaimed within the USA under the control of the generator
  • Hazardous secondary material generated and transferred for reclamation
  • Hazardous secondary material generated and transferred to another person for remanufacturing

Some waste types are specifically excluded from the definition of hazardous solid wastes. These exclusions come under 40 CFR section 261.4(b) and include:

  • Household hazardous waste
  • Agricultural waste
  • Mining overburden (the rock removed to reach the material to be mined)
  • Trivalent Chromium waste
  • Many used oil products including filtered and distillation bottoms

3: Listed wastes

Wastes are defined as hazardous by being included on the F- and K-lists under 40 CFR section 261.31. The F-list defines wastes by what they contain and the K-list by which industry produces them. For a full breakdown of waste types, including the F- and K- lists, see this post.

4: Delisting

Even if waste has ticked every box so far, its generator can petition to have it delisted.

Characteristic wastes, which are always hazardous because they have dangerous characteristics such as being explosive or poisonous, cannot be delisted, but listed wastes sometimes can be.

To have waste delisted, the generator must petition the appropriate authority — sometimes the US EPA regional office and sometimes a state environmental agency. Instructions on how to do this, depending on your location, are at the EPA website here. A list of wastes which have previously been delisted is available here, and the EPA’s Hazardous Waste Delisting Risk Assessment Software (DRAS) tool is available here.

If waste is solid, not excluded from the definition and not delisted, it’s subject to regulation under the RCAS.

Who is responsible for waste?

The main point of ‘cradle-to-grave’ waste management is that whoever generates the waste is responsible for it. This entity is the ‘generator,’ and they are responsible for every stage of handling the waste until it has been safely disposed of.

They’re also responsible for documenting and overseeing every stage of waste management, handling and disposal. RCRA is above all a mechanism to allocate and identify waste ownership, so if anything winds up where it shouldn’t be there’s no argument about who is responsible. The waste generator bears ultimate responsibility, every time. (This is partly why the number 1 reason for fines under RCRA is improper labeling.)

This means, among other things, that it’s generally best to address waste at the source and reduce the size of your ‘cradle’ — the less waste you feed into the hazardous waste system the less you have to worry about the waste management process and the associated expenses, so the RCRA incentivizes reclamation, recycling and remanufacturing.

Stages of the waste management process

hazardous waste barrels

The EPA lays out a five-step process for the management of hazardous waste, which works like this:

1: Generation

Generation is the ‘cradle’ of the ‘cradle-to-grave’ waste management process. This is where the waste is actually created. It is the generator’s responsibility to determine if waste is hazardous, document and identify it, and arrange for proper handling and disposal. (If disputes arise later, it’s always best to have the whole process properly documented.)

As we have seen, material that is reclaimed, remanufactured or recycled is exempt from waste regulations and everything generated has to go through the other four stages — including documentation and appropriate disposal, and with the generator responsible for it at every step. So many companies start by trying to reduce the amount of waste they generate.

2: Transportation

The waste generator is also responsible for ensuring that the waste and waste transportation methods meet the Department of Transportation (DOT) requirements. This means waste must be properly labeled, stored in appropriate containers and sealed to prevent leaks and contamination. It must be transported by a transportation provider who similarly meets the DOT standards, which are covered by 49 CFR Parts 100-185. Transportation of hazardous waste is overseen by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA).

3: Treatment

Some types of waste can be recycled safely, but many require treatment to protect soil, groundwater and air before they can be disposed of. These treatments can include solidification, when liquid and sludge wastes are mixed with absorbents to create physically solid waste that does not leach out into groundwater; and stabilization, when waste is chemically treated to ensure that it meets the requirements for landfill disposal.

Generators cannot do this themselves, unless they have appropriate permits and facility designations, which is rarely the case. So a generator’s relationship with a waste vendor often starts on their own site.

4: Storage

Waste must sometimes be stored at multiple stages of the waste management process. This can involve storage at the generator’s facility, during transportation, or during the treatment process. Whenever the waste is stored, the waste generator is responsible for ensuring that waste is properly stored to avoid spills, leakage and hazards.

5: Disposal

Disposal of hazardous wastes is the ‘grave’ of the ‘cradle-to-grave’ waste management process. Once waste has been treated, and after everything that can be reclaimed through reuse and recycling has been removed, waste is either dumped into appropriate landfills, burned for energy or, in the case of some wastes, incinerated at very high temperatures. As with every other stage of the process, this is the waste generator’s responsibility. They must ensure that they are delivering the right wastes to the right facilities, which are appropriately licensed.

Treatment Storage and Disposal facilities (TSDFs) provide temporary storage and final treatment or disposal for hazardous wastes. They manage large volumes of often seriously hazardous waste; because of the risks involved, these facilities are heavily regulated.

Locating an appropriate waste disposal facility

waste facility

In addition to federal regulations, state and local regulations govern waste disposal. Facilities across the country vary as to the types of waste they can accept.

Solid waste sites for non-hazardous wastes are regulated under subtitle D of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), and these are designated Municipal Solid Waste Landfills (MSWL). The EPA guidelines on MSWLs can be read here, and there’s a list of all such facilities in the USA here. There are currently 1,908 MSWLs in the continental USA, meaning they’re relatively accessible — but they aren’t licensed to handle hazardous wastes.

For that, you’ll need a landfill regulated and permitted under subtitle C of the TCSA, and these are rarer: there are just 21 in the USA. The EPA offers a list of hazardous waste treatment and disposal sites across the country, listed state by state.

Working with a waste vendor

Working with a waste vendor doesn’t relieve you of your responsibility as the waste generator to manage the whole life cycle of the waste you generate. It does give you access to professional services and skills, but you’re still ultimately responsible; they may help prepare manifests, for instance, but you will sign them - and if they’re inaccurate, you and not the vendor will face the courts.

If you’re generating one specific type of hazardous waste, it makes sense to seek a waste vendor that deals in the waste you generate. If your needs are more varied you might want a more general solution. Make sure you look for a waste vendor with appropriate licensing and that manages hazardous waste.

Waste vendors can typically help with identifying waste types by testing and profiling the waste, managing storage and transportation and identifying appropriate disposal sites.

Wastebits has a vendor locator that lets you find vendors by location and waste type, and all our vendors are appropriately licensed.

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