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Hazardous and low-level radioactive wastes: the basic framework and a note on brownfields

April 27, 2015

A part of the waste map that gets less public attention these days than in the 1980s and 1990s, hazardous and radioactive waste are primarily regulated at the federal and state levels of government. The relative lack of media attention to these wastestreams so far in the 2000s and 2010s should not obscure their importance to the structure of environmental law in the United States. The large body of federal and state laws that regulate hazardous waste management has been central in forming the general public understanding of how environmental law works as a “command and control” system. Ironically, the national and state successes in getting hazardous and radioactive waste problems off of the front page of the newspapers blogs and off of television news has, in my opinion, also contributed to the lack of awareness of how useful, important, and yes, efficient government regulation can be.

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Municipal solid waste

April 13, 2015

One of the most important categories of solid waste, as shown on my waste map, is “municipal solid waste” (often abbreviated as “MSW”). This is the waste that comes from households, the “trash” you take to the curb (and that your parents may have had picked up from behind their house). It’s the waste most people think of when they hear the term “garbage” or, for that matter, “solid waste.” But when you toss out that old paint can with some paint still in it, or that spent battery, or the expired pharmaceuticals, or burned out light bulbs, or many other things in a typical house, the substance you are discarding might well have been “hazardous waste” if it had come straight from the facility that produced it. Why is the same waste substance considered MSW on one hand and “hazardous waste” on the other? The care (and thus the costs) with which these two waste streams are disposed are quite different. This is the way environmental laws work: by drawing lines that may make sense mostly in a certain political context, the context of “what can get passed by Congress or the General Assembly.”

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The waste map

March 30, 2015
The Waste Map

I place waste at the center of environmental law based on my personal, broad definition of waste. My definition includes anything humans produce that isn’t needed for the purpose of the production and that isn’t used beneficially right away–things that we could do without, such as the heat from an incandescent bulb, in most circumstances. Yes, there are times we might want a light bulb that also produces a lot of heat, but in most settings we could duplicate the desired light quality and quantity with a bulb that saves energy, by not producing excess heat. Similarly, the light from a bulb that is turned on, but not serving any useful purpose, is also waste.

For a working environmental lawyer, though, this is a bit esoteric. What that lawyer, or anyone trying to understand the positive law of the environment, needs is a way to keep all the parts of the legal definition of “solid waste” in place. In other words, our law in NC (and elsewhere in the US) has created many sub-categories of waste, and the regulation of these sub-categories varies widely. Which means the costs vary widely. So I use a waste map that I’ve created to help keep track of regulatory categories of waste.

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Can NC cities or counties require recycling?

March 23, 2015

Can cities or counties in North Carolina require customers, particularly commercial customers, to use the local government’s recycling program?  It’s a good question, especially in light of the failure of almost all of the State’s counties to meet the ten year waste reduction goals created back in 1991–most counties  did not reduce their waste streams at all. I think the answer is “no,” an NC city or county cannot mandate recycling, meaning the use of the local government’s recycling service.  However, local governments can require the separation of recyclable materials from the municipal solid waste stream, the waste headed to the landfill. It’s then up to the customer to decide what to do with the reclaimed material.  A local government that goes further and provides a convenient way to collect the recovered material can go a long way to reducing the pressure for future landfill disposal.

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