The more you explain it, the more I don’t understand it.” Mark Twain certainly would have had a field day commenting on today’s complex world of environmental regulations.

Throughout most of human history, the term “solid waste” had a simple definition – a material that is neither liquid nor gas that is no longer useful and is ready to be discarded. Alas, with the help of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the concept of solid waste is no longer simple. In fact, the EPA has created at least nine different web-based resources to help explain the what, how and why of solid waste to the regulated community.

Incoherent Regulations
In the words of James Madison, “It will be of little avail to the people … if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read or so incoherent that they cannot be understood.” One particularly incoherent aspect of our environmental regulations is that the term “solid waste” is both a super-category and a sub-category.

The super-category is where non-hazardouswastesare distinguished from hazardoussubstances. At this level, the definition of solid waste is actually quite sensible, incorporating municipal solid waste (e.g., garbage and trash) and industrial solid waste (e.g., production scrap and demolition waste) in the non-hazardous category.

Unfortunately, the common sense ends there. Because hazardoussubstanceshave the potential to become hazardouswastes, the EPA seems to have reasoned that “solid waste” should also be a sub-category under hazardous substances. In this realm, physics takes a back seat to chutzpah because gases and liquids suddenly become candidates for designation as solid wastes.

“Definition” Regulations
Novices who wish to venture into the regulatory world of solid waste are directed to the EPA’s “DSW Tool” webpage, which provides an interactive guide through the “Definition of Solid Waste” regulations. Yes, you heard it right. Our nation is blessed with an entire set of regulations that define what constitutes a solid waste! Gone are the days when definitions comprised a page or two at the beginning of a regulation. Now they comprise an entire regulation unto themselves.

The DSW Tool is essentially a decision tree that helps users discover the true identity of their solid waste by sending it through a set of decision gates that ultimately lead to the following (mutually exclusive) netherworlds: “Solid Waste,” “Not a Solid Waste,” “Non-Hazardous Waste,” “Excluded Material/Process” and “Solid Waste, even when Used/Re-used.”

To further assist the public, the EPA published a set of 23 documents (398 pages total) called the Definition of Solid Waste Compendium. The preamble contains the following confession: “A frequently mentioned comment from stakeholders is the need for EPA to improve the user-friendliness of the existing regulations … stakeholders have difficulty understanding the regulations and identifying solid waste.”

Are we surprised that stakeholders are confused when the EPA expects the regulated community to adopt and appreciate concepts such as: Inherently Waste-Like Materials (which means chemical by-products that often contain dioxins), Use Constituting Disposal (meaning materials used to make cement, fertilizer and anti-skid agents) and Universal Wastes (which applies “universally” to a few types of batteries, pesticides, thermostats and lamps)?

Delving a bit deeper into the seemingly oxymoronic category “Solid Waste, even when Used/Re-used,” we find that some materials are solid wastes even if they are recycled, used, re-used or returned to the original process. This includes materials that are burned for energy recovery or used to produce a fuel. Thus, while one branch of regulators wants to encourage conservation of energy (ostensibly to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases), another branch wants to micro-manage how industry goes about doing it.

As Benjamin Franklin put it, “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become more corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.” In the realm where industry intersects with the environment, today’s master is the regulator.

One way for industry to liberate itself from this exasperating ruler would be to develop a market-based system to handle the disposition of all forms of waste material – gas, liquid and solid. Since generating and discarding waste material causes varying degrees of negative consequences to neighboring businesses and individuals, the system would have to account for those negative impacts in a manner commensurate with the potential damage.

This columnist welcomes reader input on the subject and hopes to assemble a future column enumerating promising ideas.IH