Why Hazardous Waste Management Is So Critical in Schools

Schools are a hotbed for hazardous waste generation, though many educational leaders are completely unaware of these dangers. From science labs to cleaning supply rooms, waste must be managed and disposed of properly, as inadequate waste management poses health and safety risks to students, faculty, staff, and the environment. After all, it only takes one incident to destroy the trust of the community.

Leaders who choose not to follow federal and local regulations regarding hazardous waste management run the risk of incurring fines and penalties. Moreover, improper management can lead to serious issues. Spills or other incidents can result in lost education time and significant costs, including potential lawsuits. Toxic chemicals are known to cause a variety of serious health problems, including cancer, brain and nervous system disorders, reproductive disorders, organ damage, and more. Some chemicals can even pose dangerous safety threats, such as fire or explosion risks, according to the EPA.

To protect schools and communities, college and university leaders should take the necessary planning steps at the beginning of the school year to ensure their hazardous waste is properly managed.

Hazardous Waste Basics

Enacted in 1976, the Resource Conservation & Recovery Act (RCRA) states that generators of hazardous waste are responsible for their waste from the time of generation to the final destruction. Since schools are considered generators of hazardous waste, facility managers of school buildings must comply with all government-mandated guidelines outlined within RCRA and any other relevant federal, state, or local regulations that dictate how to manage and dispose of it. If they do not follow regulations, schools are at risk for receiving penalties, and their actions could have a damaging effect on the environment.

Because of this, it’s imperative for facility managers, grounds maintenance, and janitorial team members to correctly identify and store hazardous waste generated on site. To guarantee hazardous waste is managed in a safe manner that is compliant with government-mandated regulations, schools typically hire a hazardous waste disposal services company to provide compliance training in addition to pick-up and disposal services. After the hazardous waste is picked up from the school, the service provider assumes the responsibility of the waste and transports it to a treatment facility.

Furthermore, hazardous waste must be properly identified and separated to keep incompatible materials segregated. Typical segregation categories include: aerosols and flammables, corrosive acidic and alkaline items, toxics, oxidizers, universal waste, and reactives.

  • Aerosols and flammables catch fire easily and have a flash point of less than 140 degrees Fahrenheit or 60 degrees Celsius.
  • Corrosive acidic and alkaline items easily corrode materials or human tissue. Acidic materials contain a pH of less than 2, while alkaline materials have a pH of 12.5 or higher. Many cleaning items commonly used in schools have corrosive characteristics.
  • Toxics, such as rat poison, herbicides, and fungicides are harmful or fatal when ingested or absorbed.
  • Oxidizers support combustion and include chemicals sometimes found in school labs, such as hydrogen peroxide, sodium perchlorate, and bromine.
  • Universal waste includes batteries, light bulbs, and mercury switches. Universal waste is one of the more commonly produce, yet overlooked, wastes in a school building and must be managed by the same standards as hazardous waste.
  • Reactives are commonly found in chemistry lab chemicals and can release toxic fumes when heated or mixed with water.

To keep its hazardous waste management program compliant, school leaders should consult resources that outline their local county and city regulations, as they are often more stringent than federal regulations. For more information on what constitutes hazardous waste, visit the EPA’s website.

Hazardous Problem Areas

As one of the most common sources of hazardous waste in a school building, science lab classrooms require special attention to ensure proper management, transport, and disposal of chemicals. From cleaning ventilation hoods to removing chemicals no longer needed, hazardous waste should be regularly addressed in school science labs.

Hazardous Waste Storage

There are several best practices for bagging, segregating, and storing hazardous waste prior to disposal or recycling that will help ensure the safety and full compliance of a school’s hazardous waste management program.

  • Seal items. Prior to storing any hazardous waste items in a bin, place them individually in a sealed plastic bag. This will keep the items from mixing and causing a reaction. Double bag any leaking containers and add absorbents to prevent issues.
  • Use separate bins. Incompatible hazardous waste items must remain separate, so it’s recommended to use separate accumulation bins that are designated for each of the following categories: aerosols and flammables, toxics, corrosive acidic, corrosive alkaline (basic), oxidizers, and universal waste.
  • Label containers. Once the initial item is placed within a bin, make sure the bin is labeled as required by the regulations, including labeling the container as “hazardous waste” or “universal waste” and include the accumulation start date. If an inspector visits a school, proper labeling is one of the first things they will examine and evaluate. States often have specific hazardous waste labeling requirements and also require weekly inspections of hazardous waste accumulation containers and storage areas.
  • Scout a safe storage area. Store accumulation bins in a dedicated, permanent, clean, and organized hazardous waste area. The ideal location is away from traffic areas, electrical panels, perishable or consumable product storage, and dock doors. The containers should be closed at all times except when adding or removing wastes, and the containers should be placed on an impervious service, such as pavement or tile, without floor drains.
  • Keep relevant supplies and information together. Store containment bags, spill kits, absorbents, and other relevant supplies in the secure storage area. The waste bins should be clearly visible at all times, and emergency numbers, training materials, and informational posters should be displayed in plain sight.

Minimized Waste

Ultimately, schools should strive to minimize or completely remove the generation of hazardous waste by eliminating as many of their waste streams as possible. If a school is not producing hazardous waste, it can avoid disposal costs, potential spill cleanups, potential health and safety hazards, record keeping, and storage requirements.

It is crucial that school hazardous waste is managed in a safe and compliant way. In doing so, colleges and universities are able to ensure the safety of their students, faculty, staff, local communities, and the environment.