The topic of toxic waste treatments is understandably broad. Toxic waste refers to any substance which can cause damage or death to a living creature (1). It is quite prevalent throughout the United Kingdom and it is often the result of industrial or commercial process. Heavy metals, VOCs (volatile organic compounds) and radioactive by-products are three examples here.
Legislation and Regulations
The Environment Agency within England is the governing body liable for the monitoring and disposal of toxic waste. Their primary framework is guided by the Hazardous Waste Regulations of 2005 (for both England and Wales). There are numerous guidelines which must be followed (2). Some examples here are:
•How to determine if the waste is dangerous.
•Rules that producers and holders must follow.
•Legislation for carriers of toxic waste.
•The registration processes for each of the above.
Failure to comply with these regulations can result in heavy fines and even criminal charges being brought against the individual or organisation.
Toxic Waste Treatment Options
Due to the sheer variety of waste produced, there are many different methods to minimise its problems and protect the environment. Let us view some of the most common.
Some substances such as radioactive materials will need to be completely isolated from the environment. Although secure facilities can be used (such as in the storage of spend fuel rods from a nuclear reactor), there are other times when the waste will be buried at a designated site within impermeable containers. Heavy metals can fall into this category as well. These could also be mixed with cement and buried.
Other materials including volatile organic compounds can be processed to decrease their threat to the outside world. Another form of processing may be incineration. This could be the preferred method when disposing of toxic wastes that are organic in their nature.
3. Emerging Methods
An interesting approach that has been espoused by some scientists involves the use of high-temperature plasma arcs. The main benefit of this option is the fact that as plasma burns at notably higher temperatures than conventional incineration techniques, it is able to much easier break down complex compounds that would otherwise require long-term storage (3). Additionally, modern plasma arc burners require much less space and generate little waste in terms of toxic by-products.
4. Addressing the Challenges of Electronic Waste
Otherwise known as e-waste, this subcategory is associated with computers, laptops and other modern electronic devices. This presents a particular challenge, for it is estimated that the amount of e-waste will weigh eight times as much as the pyramids of Egypt by 2017 (4). The issue is that while these items can be recycled for their precious metals, there are also toxic substances found within such as cadmium and mercury. Therefore, much of the focus has been placed upon industrial separation technologies that will break larger parts down into their smaller components. Useful materials can be reused while toxic compounds can be efficiently segregated. These chemicals may indeed have further industrial value. This can prevent them from being released back into the environment while simultaneously lowering the cost of many common devices such as tablets and smartphones.