Industrialization has brought us the benefits of a comfortable modern lifestyle: health-giving pharmaceuticals, labour-saving household appliances, automobiles and ships, paints and detergents, synthetic fibres and polythene packaging, personal computers and TVs, just to name a few out of an endless list of manufactured goods. However, behind the luxury and convenience of modern living lies the real price of this industrial production – the generation of hundreds of million tonnes of hazardous waste every year. Wastes that too often pour out of smokestacks and outtake pipes, lie abandoned in dumps or leaky storage drums, or are shipped off illegally to distant places, exposing local communities to great dangers.
What makes a waste hazardous?
Hazardous wastes come in many shapes and forms. They can be liquids, solids, contained gases, or sludges. They can be the byproducts of manufacturing processes or simply discarded commercial products, like cleaning fluids or pesticides. Four defining characteristics of hazardous waste are:
Ignitability. Ignitable wastes can create fires under certain conditions or are spontaneously combustible. Examples include waste oils and used solvents.
Corrosivity. Corrosive wastes are acids or bases that are capable of corroding metal, like storage tanks, containers, drums, and barrels. Battery acid is a good example.
Reactivity. Reactive wastes are unstable under “normal” conditions. They can cause explosions, toxic fumes, gases, or vapors when mixed with water. Examples include lithium-sulfur batteries and explosives.
Toxicity. Toxic wastes are harmful or fatal when ingested or absorbed. When toxic wastes are disposed of on land, contaminated liquid may drain (leach) from the waste and pollute ground water. Certain chemical wastes and heavy metals are examples of potential toxic wastes. (US Environmental Protection Agency).
Abandoned munitions in Kopitnari, Ponichala and vartcihe in Georgia (photos, Ministry of Environment of Georgia)"
How much hazardous waste?
Countries that report to the Basel Convention produced around 108 million tonnes of hazardous waste in 2001. Uzbekistan is the hazardous waste leader, with 26% of the total.
Economic conditions have led to the almost complete closure of old Soviet era industrial complexes. Neither the Rustavi and Zestafoni chemical and metallurgy plants or the Chiatura and Tkibuli mines still function. However, the piles of unused chemicals and heavy metal stocks that still litter these sites pose a very real threat to the local people and environment. In addition, about 300 military sites fulfilling various purposes – including rocket ranges, tank storage, chemical production and places where radioactive devices were used – were established in Georgia during the Soviet period. After the chaotic withdrawal of the Russian military, some of these areas were simply abandoned, leaving communities to face up to tonnes of poorly stored explosives and other hazardous material. Also of great concern are the 230 radioactive sources discovered since the mid-1990s.
Controlling hazardous waste
Hazardous waste needs to be monitored and controlled from the moment the waste is generated until its ultimate disposal. Proper hazardous waste control requires a plan to reduce the amount of waste generated or the toxicity of the waste produced. The most environmentally sound and economically efficient way of managing any waste is not to generate it in the first place (source reduction). The creation of hazardous waste can be avoided, or limited, by not mixing hazardous and non-hazardous wastes or by changing some materials or processes. Hazardous wastes can often be recycled in an environmentally sound manner. Wastes that cannot be recycled must be treated to reduce the toxicity and the ability of the constituents to move throughout the environment. Treatment residues must be safely stored to avoid spills and leaks (US Environmental Protection Agency).