“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-hazardous wastes are distinguished from hazardous substances. 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 hazardous substances have the potential to become hazardous wastes, 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.”

Next time, we will conclude these thoughts.