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Waste Management Options for Homeland Security Incidents

Waste Management Hierarchy showing most preferred method to least preferred method. Source reduction and reuse. Recycling and composting. Energy recovery. Treatment and disposal.Recovery from an incident will likely involve the management of waste. To make cost-effective waste management decisions that protect human health and the environment, it is important to understand the capabilities and limitations of different waste management options for the various materials and waste streams generated. EPA has a waste management hierarchy, with a preference for reuse and recycling options.

The information on waste management options presented on this site can assist in pre-incident planning and can inform waste management decisions before and after a homeland security incident occurs. The considerations, applicable incidents and possible waste streams provided for each option are not intended to be exhaustive but rather a starting place for useful and practical waste management-related information. In addition, other management options may exist.


Reuse

Description: Materials that are recovered from an incident may be reusable. Reusing materials helps protect the environment by saving resources, including energy, virgin materials and landfill space, while reducing the economic impact to the affected area and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions caused by the transportation, treatment and disposal of generated wastes. This option should be considered before other management options in order to minimize the amount of waste needing disposal.

Considerations:

Benefits Challenges
  • Preserves original item
  • Saves resources
  • Saves space in landfills
  • Reduces GHG emissions
  • Saves cost of disposal
  • May require decontamination first to ensure safe reusability
  • Requires sampling to verify item meets the established clearance criteria
  • Public perception regarding safety of item may vary

Applicable Incidents:

  • Biological Incidents
  • Chemical Incidents
  • Natural Disasters

Possible Waste Streams:

  • Construction and Demolition Materials
  • Soils
  • Sediment and Sandbags
  • Electronics
  • White Goods
  • Vehicles and Vessels
  • Building Contents

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Recycling

Description: Recycling involves making materials that would otherwise be considered waste into feedstock for new products. Recycling helps protect the environment by saving resources, including energy, virgin materials and landfill space. This option should be considered before more permanent disposal options in order to minimize the amount of waste needing disposal.

Considerations:

Benefits Challenges
  • Produces a usable product
  • May generate revenue by selling the new product
  • Saves resources and energy
  • Saves space in landfills
  • May require treatment first to ensure safe usability
  • May require sampling before recycling
  • Public perception regarding safety of product may vary

Applicable Incidents:

  • Biological Incidents
  • Chemical Incidents
  • Natural Disasters

Possible Waste Streams:

  • Vegetative Debris
  • Construction and Demolition Materials
  • Hazardous Waste
  • Electronics
  • White Goods

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Composting

Description: Composting is a process that involves combining organic wastes in proper ratios into piles, rows or vessels, adding bulking agents (e.g., wood chips) as necessary to accelerate the breakdown of organic materials and allowing the finished material to fully stabilize and mature through a curing process. Composting requires a carbon source, which potentially can be acquired through grinding vegetative debris, thereby effectively managing two waste streams at the same time.

Controlled methods of composting include mechanical mixing and aerating, ventilating the materials by dropping them through a vertical series of aerated chambers or placing the compost in piles out in the open air and mixing it or turning it periodically. This treatment option is distinct from backyard composting that individuals conduct on their own properties. Instead, composting, as a treatment option, is used to decompose large quantities of waste either on-site (e.g., on a farm in association with animal disease control activities) or off-site (e.g., composting facilities). Off-site composting will create transportation considerations.

Considerations:

Benefits Challenges
  • Cost-effective
  • Produces a potentially usable product
  • May minimize spread of pathogens
  • Growing acceptance by states and industry
  • Saves space in landfills
  • Requires dedicated space for a period of time
  • Requires maintenance or monitoring
  • May result in possible odors/runoff
  • Requires control of vermin and other vectors
  • Public perception regarding safety of compost may vary
  • May have limited capability if the ambient temperatures are too low

Applicable Incidents:

  • Natural Disasters
  • Foreign Animal Diseases (e.g., Avian Influenza)

Possible Waste Streams:

  • Vegetative Debris
  • Animal Carcasses and other Putrescible Wastes

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Long-term Storage

Description: Storage is the holding of waste for a temporary period of time prior to its treatment or disposal. In the event that existing waste management facilities do not have the capacity or capability to manage all incident-generated waste, long-term storage of the waste may be needed until other management options become feasible. Federal, state, local, tribal and territorial laws and regulations may apply including permits.

Considerations:

Benefits Challenges
  • Provides time for waste segregation and treatment activities
  • Suitable for numerous waste streams
  • Provides long-term capacity
  • Requires dedicated space for a long period of time
  • Requires maintenance and security
  • May require continuous environmental monitoring
  • Waste still requires proper treatment and disposal

Applicable Incidents:

  • Explosive Incidents
  • Radiological Incidents
  • Biological Incidents
  • Chemical Incidents
  • Natural Disasters

Possible Waste Streams:

  • Municipal Solid Waste
  • Hazardous Waste
  • Radiological,Biological and Chemically contaminated Wastes

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On-site Burial

Description: On-site burial involves placing waste within the ground at the site of the incident. This disposal option should only be used when site characteristics allow it (e.g., depth to water table) and proper environmental controls to protect groundwater, surface water, air and soil are put into place. Refer to federal, state, local, tribal and territorial laws and regulations for the appropriate requirements.

Considerations:

Benefits Challenges
  • Rapid, on-site solution
  • Cost-effective
  • Eliminates on-road transportation
  • Minimizes spread of pathogens
  • Restrictions on approved sites
  • Requires significant space
  • May require initial and continuous environmental monitoring
  • May result in contamination
  • Future land use concerns
  • Public acceptance
  • Predators if shallow burial
  • Requires control of vermin and other vectors

Applicable Incidents:

  • Foreign Animal Diseases
  • Natural Disasters

Possible Waste Streams:

  • Municipal Solid Waste
  • Vegetative Debris
  • Animal Carcasses

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Landfill Disposal

Description: Landfills are carefully designed structures built into or on top of the ground in which waste is placed in isolation from the surrounding environment. There are different types of landfills, each designed to handle particular types of waste. For example, hazardous waste must be placed into a Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) Subtitle C landfill. Municipal solid waste can be placed into a RCRA Subtitle D landfill. In addition, there are construction and demolition landfills, industrial landfills and landfills that accept low-level radioactive waste. Generally, each landfill is permitted or licensed for particular types of waste.

A landfill generally cannot accept waste that falls outside the scope of its permit. However, even if a privately owned landfill legally can accept a particular waste, the owner or operator does not have to accept the waste. In addition, some wastes may need to be treated (e.g., volume or toxicity reduction) before being disposed of in a landfill or may require disposal in a special landfill (e.g., asbestos-containing waste). It is important to note that treatment options may generate their own wastes, which may also be disposed of in landfills, when appropriate. More information on landfills can be found on EPA’s Landfills/Land Disposal web page.

Considerations:

Benefits Challenges
  • Waste is properly characterized
  • Facilities are properly sited with necessary controls
  • Suitable for numerous waste streams
  • Transportation concerns/costs
  • Potential spread of pathogens from biological incidents
  • Reluctance of some owners/operators/residents
  • Facility indemnification may be an issue
  • Total capacity limited in each landfill
  • Contributes to landfill emissions of GHG

Applicable Incidents:

  • Explosive Incidents
  • Radiological Incidents
  • Biological Incidents
  • Foreign Animal Diseases like Chronic Wasting Disease
  • Chemical Incidents
  • Natural Disasters

Possible Waste Streams:

  • Vegetative Debris
  • Construction and Demolition Materials
  • Soils Sediment and Sandbags
  • Municipal Solid Waste
  • Hazardous Waste
  • Electronics
  • White Goods
  • Animal Carcasses and other Putrescible Wastes
  • Radiological, Biological and Chemically contaminated Wastes

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Open Burning

Description: Open burning is the deliberate outdoor burning of waste. It can be done in open drums, in fields or in large open pits or trenches. The use of this option is highly restrictive; many states and local communities have laws regulating or banning open burning. Open burning is prohibited for many waste streams and may require special permission for allowable waste streams. Open burning should only be done when no other alternatives are available and where it is appropriate. Under certain conditions, emergency waivers may be issued. Refer to state, local, tribal and territorial regulations for specific requirements.

Considerations:

Benefits Challenges
  • Eliminates on-road transportation
  • Reduces waste volume
  • Restrictions on approved sites and waste streams
  • Many states prohibit use or require special permission
  • Typically requires air monitoring
  • Weather can severely limit use/effectiveness
  • Public acceptance
  • May spread contamination
  • May contribute to GHG emissions and lower air quality

Applicable Incidents:

  • Foreign Animal Diseases
  • Natural Disasters

Possible Waste Streams: ​

  • Vegetative Debris
  • Animal Carcasses

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Combustion

Description: Combustion units burn waste under controlled conditions primarily for energy and material recovery (i.e., in boilers and industrial furnaces) or waste destruction (i.e., in incinerators). As with landfills, different combustion units are permitted for different types of waste. Hazardous waste must be brought to a combustion unit permitted to accept hazardous waste.

Hazardous waste incinerators are designed to handle a variety of types of hazardous wastes, and many facilities have a high degree of flexibility as to the types of feedstocks they can accept. Municipal solid waste combustion units are permitted to burn municipal solid waste, and medical waste incinerators are designed to handle pathogenic wastes. A privately owned combustion unit does not have to accept the waste brought to it, even if the waste is within the scope of its permit.

Considerations:

Benefits Challenges
  • Reduces waste volume
  • Can inactivate disease agents
  • Can reduce the toxicity of waste
  • Can have significant energy and material recovery potential
  • Residues still require proper testing and disposal
  • May produce undesirable by-products
  • Transportation concerns/costs
  • Capacity limitations
  • Facility indemnification may be an issue
  • Reluctance of some owners/operators/residents
  • Often very financially costly

Applicable Incidents:

  • Biological Incidents
  • Food Contamination
  • Foreign Animal Diseases like Chronic Wasting Disease
  • Chemical Incidents
  • Natural Disasters

Possible Waste Streams:

  • Vegetative Debris
  • Municipal Solid Waste
  • Hazardous Waste
  • Animal Carcasses
  • Biologically contaminated Waste

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Rendering

Description: Rendering facilities convert animal carcasses or animal by-products into economically valuable products, such as animal feed ingredients. During the rendering process, as the animal material is heated, water is driven off, and the animal material separates into a fat-containing material called “tallow” and a solid material called “meat and bone meal.” Please note that in order to prevent the spread of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), or “mad cow disease,” through animal feed, FDA prohibits the rendering of high-risk cattle material for animal feed use. Therefore, this high-risk cattle material will have to be disposed of by other means (e.g., landfill, composting, incineration and possibly by disposal rendering).

Considerations:

Benefits Challenges
  • Recycles animal carcasses
  • Creates economically valuable products
  • Inactivates many pathogens
  • Reduces waste volume
  • Transportation concerns/costs
  • Potential for disease spread during transport
  • Limited capacity
  • Reluctance of some owners/operators/residents
  • Residues require proper handling and management
  • Public perception regarding safety of product may vary

Applicable Incidents:

  • Foreign Animal Diseases
  • Natural Disasters

Possible Waste Streams:

  • Animal Carcasses and other Putrescible Wastes

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Alkaline Hydrolysis

Description: Alkaline hydrolysis uses an alkaline solution, such as sodium hydroxide, pressure and heat, to convert animal carcasses into an aqueous solution. The resulting aqueous solution must be neutralized and properly managed. Alkaline hydrolysis is one of the few technologies capable of deactivating prions, which are believed to cause Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathy (TSE) diseases, such as Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) (i.e., mad cow disease) and chronic wasting disease.

Considerations:

Benefits Challenges
  • Suitable for viruses, bacteria and prions
  • Reduces waste volume
  • Transportation concerns/costs
  • Very limited capacity
  • Not widely available
  • Residues require proper handling and management
  • Waste stream disposal issues
  • Possible negative public perception

Applicable Incidents:

  • Foreign Animal Diseases

Possible Waste Streams:

  • Animal Carcasses

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Digestion Methods

Description: Digestion involves a process that uses bacteria to break down organic matter (animal carcasses). The digestion process produces biosolids and methane gas, which are potentially useful products.

Considerations:

Benefits Challenges
  • Suitable for viruses and bacteria (not prions)
  • Creates potentially useful products
  • Transportation concerns/costs
  • Limited capacity
  • Not widely available
  • Residues require proper handling and management

Applicable Incidents:

  • Foreign Animal Diseases

Possible Waste Streams:

  • Animal Carcasses

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Autoclaving

Description: Autoclaving sterilizes waste through the use of high temperatures and high pressure steam. It is a commonly used treatment process for medical waste.

Considerations:

Benefits Challenges
  • Relatively inexpensive
  • Suitable for viruses/disease agents
  • Throughput/Capacity limitations
  • Not widely available
  • Limited volume reduction
  • Efficiency dependent on packaging
  • Transportation concerns/costs
  • Residues still require proper testing and management
  • Porous materials present difficulties

Applicable Incidents:

  • Biological Incidents such as Bacillus anthracis
  • Pandemic Diseases like Ebola
  • Foreign Animal Diseases

Possible Waste Streams:

  • Biologically contaminated Waste

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Bioremediation

Description: Bioremediation is a process that naturally degrades chemicals in soil and groundwater using biological processes that involve the conversion of chemicals by microbes into water and harmless gases. The right conditions (e.g., temperature, nutrients, amount of oxygen) must be present or created in order for bioremediation to be successful.

Considerations:

Benefits Challenges
  • Cost-effective
  • Eliminates on-road transportation
  • Few, if any, wastes are created
  • Requires dedicated space for a period of time
  • May extend cleanup schedule
  • May require maintenance or monitoring
  • Requires sampling

Applicable Incidents:

  • Explosive Incidents
  • Chemical Incidents
  • Natural Disasters

Possible Waste Streams:

  • Chemically contaminated Waste

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Additional Resources

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