Last reviewed 17 September 2015

In June 2015 the way that hazardous waste is assessed and classified in the UK changed significantly. Although the changes are largely administrative, they will affect any organisation that deals with hazardous waste. Mike Sopp outlines the changes.

Once waste has been identified and classified as hazardous in accordance with revised classification guidance, those producing the waste have a number of specific legal duties.

As well as responsibilities to protect the environment, employers have duties under health and safety legislation to ensure any risks of harm to health associated with hazardous waste are appropriately controlled.

Risks and responsibilities

Waste is considered “hazardous” under environmental legislation when it contains substances, or has properties, that might make it harmful to human health or the environment.

Such waste can be introduced to the environment through release into the air, water or land. As well as having direct and long-term impacts on wildlife and fauna, hazardous waste can affect humans, for example by contaminating groundwater supplies or by entering the food chain.

With an estimated 4.3 million tonnes of hazardous waste being produced annually in the UK, the producers of such waste have a “duty of care” to:

  • prevent the illegal deposit, disposal or treatment of any waste produced

  • prevent waste from escaping (eg leaking, blowing away, being stolen)

  • ensure that waste is only transferred to authorised persons

  • ensure that any waste transferred is accompanied by a written consignment note.

More specifically for hazardous waste, unless an organisation produces or holds less than 500kg of such waste in any 12-month period, it is required to register the premises with the appropriate agency. Organisations are also required to classify the waste appropriately and then separate and store the hazardous waste away from non-hazardous waste.

As well as being harmful to humans through environmental routes, hazardous waste can be harmful to employees directly handling and transporting it.

Under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH), an employer is required to make a suitable and sufficient assessment of the risk created by work activities which should “take into account those substances which are… produced at the end of any process, eg wastes, residues, scrap etc.” In addition, COSHH requires:

  • measures to be taken in respect of the safe handling and transport of waste substances

  • means for instituting the safe collection, storage and disposal of contaminated waste

  • the use of secure and identifiable containers.

Identification, classification and assessment

To be able to meet the legislative responsibilities summarised above, an organisation will first of all have to determine what, if any, hazardous waste it is producing.

A useful exercise is the completion of a waste audit or survey that identifies the potential waste streams in the organisation. This will include identifying:

  • any materials or substances used in the workplace that may be deemed to be waste when disposed of

  • the processes and operations that may produce waste as a by-product

  • the types and quantities of waste materials produced (eg liquid, solid).

The respective home nation environment agencies have produced guidance in the form of Technical Guidance WM3 which provides the procedure for waste classification and assessment.

Technical Guidance WM3 details the process to be adopted for the classification of wastes which must be completed before any waste is moved or disposed of and be included in relevant documentation (eg consignment note). This enables waste to be classified where necessary as hazardous waste.

Depending on the type of waste, there may be a need to undertake an assessment of the hazardous properties of the waste as part of the classification process. This will include identifying the chemical composition of the waste and then assessing hazardous properties through:

  • calculation, by referring to a concentration limit for a hazard statement code/s

  • testing, to prove whether a particular hazardous property is present or not

  • the safety data sheet, if the waste is a manufactured product whose composition has not changed, for that specific product.

The information obtained from this process on hazardous properties can also be used to assist in the completion of a risk assessment under COSHH. Regulation 6 stipulates that the assessment must include consideration of “the hazardous properties of the substance and information on health effects provided by the supplier, including information contained in any relevant safety data sheet”.

Having determined the presence of hazardous waste, the organisation will then need to give consideration to the control measures necessary to meet legislative requirements.

Risk control

Clearly, the control measures adopted will depend on the type and quantity of hazardous waste involved. However, under the waste management hierarchy and COSHH, the first matter to consider would be risk control through “prevention”.

By designing out the use of materials or processes that produce hazardous waste, organisations can eliminate the source of the waste. This can be a low-cost option with immediate payback, removing the need for the disposal of hazardous materials in the future and protecting employees involved with the handling or transport operations.

Where prevention is not possible, control activities can be broken down into a number of areas, these being waste minimisation, handling, storage and collection.

Minimisation could take place by changing products used, by changing processes or by recycling/reusing materials and substances.

For handling, storage and collection, a number of aspects should be critically examined.

  • Hazardous waste segregation: Are hazardous wastes segregated into appropriate categories based on classification and assessment?

  • Containers: Are appropriate receptacles used for the storage? Are the containers sensibly located and suitably labelled?

  • Storage areas: How and where are the wastes stored? How long are wastes stored prior to transport and disposal?

  • Waste handling: Are hazardous wastes handled in a safe manner with due attention to any associated hazard? Do we inform contractors handling waste of the risks?

  • Documentation and records: Are adequate records kept of all wastes produced and of their safe and correct transfer/disposal?

  • Emergency procedures: What emergency procedures are in place for implementing in the event of an unwanted incident? Is there a pollution control plan for emergency situations?

  • Staff safety: Are employees made aware of the hazards of the waste? Are adequate safety equipment and systems provided? Are staff members made aware of segregation requirements and arrangements?

Under the duty of care, organisations will have a responsibility to take reasonable steps to ensure that no other persons illegally treat, keep, deposit or otherwise dispose of hazardous waste. What the waste producer must do to ensure that waste is disposed of properly and safely when passed onto another party is open to interpretation.

According to the Environment Agency Code of Practice for the duty of care, “it is not possible to draw a line at the gate of the producer’s premises and say that their responsibility for waste ends there. A producer is responsible according to what he knows or should have foreseen”.

In practice, organisations should ensure that any hazardous waste to be carried is properly and securely packed for transport and notice taken of the carriers handling of the waste. If the producer ignores the illegal handling or treatment of their waste, the blame (and consequent punishment) can be shared.

Although organisations have no specific duty to audit its waste’s final destination, the Government recommends that waste producers should “carry out periodic checks (audits) to help you to ensure that your waste is handled correctly from when it leaves your premises to the final point of recovery or disposal”.