Protecting Our Communities through Safe and Legitimate Recycling

When you drop your bottles and cans off in the recycling bin or at a recycling center, you’re helping to protect the environment and your community.

But not everything is as safe to recycle as plastic and aluminum. Some materials that get recycled are hazardous – like byproducts and substances from industrial processes. If they’re not recycled carefully they can put people’s health at risk. What’s worse, many recyclers that deal with hazardous materials are located close to minority and low-income communities that already face a lot of environmental challenges.

Our administrator just signed a new rule called the Definition of Solid Waste (DSW) rule. It’s a major environmental justice milestone that directly addresses mismanagement of hazardous materials at some of these recycling facilities.

In 2009, we held a public meeting to talk about our existing DSW rule, created in 2008. We heard from dozens of people who felt we needed to better analyze the rule’s impact on minority and low income people. We also heard from recyclers and manufacturers about the benefits of safely recycling hazardous materials – from job creation and other economic benefits to a healthier environment and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. So, we made the commitment to take a closer look at the potential environmental justice impacts of the 2008 DSW rule, and at opportunities for preserving and expanding safe recycling of hazardous materials.

We examined the location of recycling facilities and their proximity and potential impact to nearby communities. Our analysis confirmed that, in many cases, the public comments were correct. Communities needed a way to participate in the conversation about these recyclers’ activities, and recyclers needed to take more preventive steps, like being more prepared to contain spills and better training for their staff. More state and EPA oversight was needed, too.

The 2014 DSW rule adds some new requirements to ensure that hazardous waste is legitimately recycled and not being disposed of illegally. It requires recyclers to get a Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) permit or verified recycler variance from us or their state, so that the recyclers’ safety measures can be verified and nearby communities can be protected. Recyclers who seek a permit or variance will be required to give communities an opportunity to weigh in about their location and plans.

Unfortunately, there have been cases where off-site recycling has been mismanaged. In these cases, hazardous materials have been released into communities, endangering the health of people and the environment. For example, one facility in Allenport, Pennsylvania, was recycling spent pickle liquor, a highly acidic solution used to remove impurities during steel manufacturing. This recycler didn’t have a RCRA permitand, when it chose its location, the nearby community wasn’t given a chance to provide input. In 1997, hazardous sludge from the recycling process spilled and was washed into an adjacent railroad bed next to a community playground. Later in 2004, the recycler’s storage tanks failed and spilled spent pickle liquor into a surrounding asphalt-paved area and into a storm drain (see photo). The new 2014 DSW rule will help us better respond to similar cases going forward.

Like I mentioned before, there are environmental and economic benefits to recycling hazardous materials. The new DSW rule reduces risks for communities, at the same time that it helps to encourage certain types of recycling. Some higher-value hazardous spent solvents, for example, can be remanufactured and reused safely under the rule, which means that less new solvents are created. And some hazardous byproducts can be reused in the same process that generated them, through in-process recycling.

Through this new rule, we’re helping ensure that our country is recycling more, but doing it safely to protect our communities and the environment.

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