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United Nations Environment Programme
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Newsletter and Technical Publications
<Municipal Solid Waste Management>


Sound Practices
Special wastes

1.7.1 Introduction

Types of special wastes
  • medical waste from hospitals, clinics, and laboratories
  • hazardous waste in the household waste stream (e.g., oil-based paints, paint thinners, wood preservatives, pesticides, household cleaners, used motor oil, antifreeze, batteries)
  • tires
  • used oils
  • wet batteries
  • construction and demolition debris
  • sewage sludge, septage, and slaughterhouse wastes
  • industrial waste

Special wastes are those that need special handling, treatment, and disposal because of their hazardous potential or large volumes. Ideally, these wastes should not enter the municipal solid waste stream, but quite frequently they do, particularly in developing countries.

Special wastes can cause significant health and environmental impacts when managed inadequately. Those who come into direct contact with the wastes, such as waste pickers, are at great health risk. Toxic components of these wastes can enter the environment, poisoning water bodies. Hazardous materials can also degrade MSW equipment.

Special wastes are discussed in this book because of the potential negative impact they can have on the MSWM system. Still, it is important to point out that this section only reviews the topic of special wastes superficially; if the reader is involved in any part of the management process of special wastes, further reference materials and training are extremely important.

There are a number of special wastes that are generated in an urban area (see box). These wastes are very different from each other, so they must be handled separately.

Proper management of special wastes is quite difficult in most developing countries, particularly in those where regular MSW is not managed adequately. Three issues are always relevant: First, jurisdictions for special waste management are seldom clear. Second, available resources to manage solid waste are scant and priorities have to be set. Third, the technology needed to manage special wastes is seldom available.

In the absence of countervailing reasons, the development of sound practices in the management of special wastes should follow the integrated waste management hierarchy applied in other areas of MSWM: waste minimization, resource recovery, recycling, treatment (including incineration), and final disposal. The proper application of this hierarchy depends on available technologies, as well as human and financial resources.

The effective management of special wastes begins with an assessment of their impacts on human health and the environment. The environmental benefits of properly handling hazardous wastes can be very large, since in some cases small quantities of hazardous wastes can cause significant damage. However, even though all hazardous wastes present some risks, the quantities are not always high enough to warrant separate collection and disposal. As points of reference, OECD guidelines and US regulations suggest minimum quantities of material that need special treatment as hazardous waste. Obviously, specific decisions regarding the management of special wastes will necessarily depend on the capabilities of individual countries to carry out such programs.

A number of alternatives for the handling of special wastes have been or are in the process of being devised in response to the various needs of developing and industrialized countries. These practices are summarized in this section for the most frequently encountered special wastes.

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