Check out the courses we offer
Knowledge Base » Health and Safety » What is Hazardous Waste?

What is Hazardous Waste?

Hazardous materials are in many everyday items, such as batteries, printer toners, paints and cleaning chemicals,

and are also generated through many processes and activities, such as manufacturing and recovery. When these materials are finished with or are unwanted byproducts of a process, they become hazardous waste. Therefore, both businesses and households can produce it.

The UK produces a lot of waste:

  • We generated 222.2 million tonnes of total waste in 2018, with England responsible for 84% of the UK total (GOV.UK statistics on waste).
  • We dispose of more than 5.3 million tonnes of hazardous waste from households and businesses annually (UKRWI).

Hazardous waste is not like other waste. It has to be correctly treated, stored, transported, disposed of and managed, and in a certain way. If it is not, it can harm human health, animals and the environment.

Businesses and individuals have a legal duty of care when it comes to any waste, especially waste that is hazardous. They must ensure they handle all hazardous waste responsibly, correctly and safely. If they do not, it can result in prosecution, fines and even imprisonment.

In this article, you will look at what hazardous waste is, who will encounter it and some of the legislation that applies. You will also cover how to identify and dispose of it, what will happen if it is not disposed of correctly and how to find your nearest hazardous waste disposal service.

Types of hazardous waste

What is hazardous waste?

Waste is “any substance or object which the holder discards or intends or is required to discard” (GOV.UK). Waste will typically be categorised as follows:

  • Waste that is always hazardous, e.g. fluorescent tubes.
  • Waste that needs assessing, as it may or may not be hazardous, e.g. paints or inks.
  • Waste that is never hazardous, such as edible oils.

So, what wastes are considered hazardous? According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE):

“Waste is considered ‘hazardous’ under environmental legislation when it contains substances or has properties that might make it harmful to human health or the environment. This does not necessarily mean it is an immediate risk to human health, although some waste can be.”

In Scotland, hazardous waste is called special waste.

Hazardous waste can be in solid, liquid, sludge and gas forms. It is harmful to people and the environment because of its properties which have health, environmental or physical effects.

Some of these properties are:

  • Flammable.
  • Explosive.
  • Corrosive.
  • Harmful.
  • Oxidising.
  • Ecotoxic.
  • Carcinogenic.
  • Specific target organ toxicity/aspiration toxicity.
  • Acute toxicity.
  • Produces toxic gases in contact with water, air or acid.
  • Sensitising.
  • Infectious.
  • Irritant.
  • Mutagenic.
  • Toxic for reproduction.
  • Persistent organic pollutant.
  • Residuary hazardous property.

It is classified as ‘hazardous’ in the European Waste Catalogue (or List of Wastes).

Some examples of hazardous waste include the following (this list is not exhaustive):

  • Adhesives.
  • Aerosoles.
  • Asbestos (often found during construction).
  • Batteries, e.g. lead acid, Ni-Cd and mercury.
  • Biocides.
  • Chemicals, e.g. acids/alkalis, cleaning agents, brake fluids, paints, and some printer toner cartridges.
  • Clinical waste, e.g. hospital waste.
  • Electrical equipment.
  • Effluents.
  • Equipment containing ozone-depleting substances, e.g. fridges.
  • Fluorescent tubes.
  • Hazardous waste containers.
  • Medicines.
  • Oils (not edible ones) and used oil filters.
  • Pesticides.
  • Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs).
  • Pressurised cylinders.
  • Radioactive materials.
  • Solvents.

These types of wastes are regulated under hazardous waste regulations because they are dangerous and difficult to handle. They can endanger the lives of humans and animals and can cause irreversible environmental damage.

Hazardous Waste Regulations

What are the hazardous waste regulations?

There are numerous laws surrounding waste, including various amendments. Most changes to UK waste legislation have occurred because of the requirement for the UK to comply with European Union (EU) laws as a previous member state. Since leaving the EU, very little has changed regarding hazardous waste legislation, as it has been retained in UK law.

Some examples of legislation relating to hazardous waste include:

  • It covers pollution, contamination, statutory nuisances, waste and other areas of environmental protection.
  • The Act gives local authorities certain powers and enforcement options.
  • Under section 34 of the Act, everyone has responsibilities, known as a duty of care, when it comes to waste.
  • Sections 62-63 cover hazardous waste and non-controlled waste.
  • It covers the controlling and tracking movements of hazardous waste.
  • Businesses must appropriately manage the storage, transport and disposal of hazardous waste to reduce the risks.
  • Hazardous waste must be segregated from non-hazardous waste and must not be mixed.
  • The transfer of hazardous waste must be covered by a consignment note and records kept for three years.
  • Businesses in Wales must register their premises with Natural Resources Wales (NRW) if they produce or store over 500kg of hazardous waste per year.
  • Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own regulations, e.g.:
    The Special Waste Regulations 1996.
    The Hazardous Waste Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2005.
  • Establishes a list of wastes, known as the European Waste Catalogue (EWC).
  • It has been retained in UK law after Brexit.
  • The list of wastes has been included in Appendix A of Technical guidance WM3. There is separate guidance for Northern Ireland.
  • This type of waste is also known as WEEE.
  • These regulations will apply, as most WEEE is classed as hazardous.
  • Further guidance is on GOV.UK.

There may be other laws that apply to a business’s specific operations. They must ensure that they comply with all applicable legislation.

Environmental and waste legislation is regulated by:

  • The Environment Agency (England).
  • Natural Resources Wales (Wales).
  • The Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (Northern Ireland).
  • The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Scotland).

When it comes to the health and safety of workers handling hazardous waste, the HSE and HSENI will enforce health and safety laws.

Who will encounter hazardous waste?

Most people will encounter hazardous waste at some point in their lives, i.e. at work, home or other locations.

From a business perspective, hazardous waste is most likely to be encountered by:

  • Producers or holders they produce, hold or store hazardous waste and may have it removed from the premises.
  • Brokers – they arrange for someone else to buy, sell or dispose of hazardous waste.
  • Dealers – they buy, sell or dispose of hazardous waste.
  • Carriers they collect and transport hazardous waste.
  • Consignees they receive, treat, recycle or dispose of hazardous waste.

The above roles will require different actions to comply with hazardous waste legislation.

How is hazardous waste identified?

Before disposing of waste, it needs to be identified, classified and assessed in accordance with its properties.

The following can help duty holders check if their waste is hazardous:

  • The waste classification code, also referred to as LoW (List of Waste) or EWC (European Waste Catalogue) code.
  • The manufacturer’s/supplier’s safety data sheet containing information on the hazards and disposal considerations.
  • Looking at the containers (where applicable) to see if it has orange and black danger symbols (old symbols) or red and white hazard pictograms and, if it has, what the hazards are.
  • Having samples sent to a laboratory for testing.
  • Asking a competent waste management specialist or contractor for advice.

The Environment Agency has technical guidance on classifying and assessing waste in Great Britain, which can be found here. There is separate guidance for Northern Ireland.

How do you dispose of hazardous waste?

Duty holders must ensure that all hazardous waste is disposed of safely, correctly and lawfully. It cannot be disposed of in the same way as non-hazardous waste can. Only authorised businesses can deal with these types of waste.

Before disposal, responsible duty holders must store and handle it appropriately, e.g. classify and separate waste, and have an authorised business registered to collect the hazardous waste. The producer/holder must ensure they separate their waste and complete a consignment note.

When a carrier collects hazardous waste from a producer or holder or moves their own, they must check the consignment note, fill in their sections and leave/retain the correct copies. The carrier must ensure they separate the waste correctly and take it to an authorised waste site detailed on the consignment note.

The site (the consignee) receiving, treating or disposing of the hazardous waste must have an appropriate environmental permit or registered exemption. On receipt of the hazardous waste, they will need to follow the correct procedures regarding separation, consignment notes and acceptance/rejection.

There are several ways in which hazardous waste is dealt with at authorised waste sites, for example:

  • Landfill – the least desirable option, and sites will look at all other options before this. Only secure landfill sites are allowed to take hazardous waste. Some types must meet the waste acceptance criteria (WAC) before disposal. Further information can be found here.
  • Recycling – some facilities can recycle hazardous waste, depending on the type, e.g. batteries and some electrical equipment. This is the preferred option, as it is better for the environment.
  • Treating – some hazardous wastes can be treated using chemical, thermal, biological or physical methods. For example, neutralising acids with alkalis or incineration and turning waste into energy sources, such as oils.

Businesses should keep waste to a minimum. Anyone who produces, handles or manages hazardous waste should apply the waste hierarchy, i.e. prevent, reuse, recycle or recover, rather than dispose of it.

Domestic hazardous waste can usually be taken to local authority recycling facilities. Some types, such as asbestos, will need specialist disposal.

Fire from hazardous waste

What can happen if you do not dispose of hazardous waste correctly?

If you do not dispose of hazardous waste safely and correctly, it can result in the following:

  • Water, land and air pollution can cause human and animal ill health, environmental damage and biodiversity loss.
  • Fires and explosions can cause structural damage, toxic fume production and pollution.
  • Contact with hazardous substances can cause minor ailments, severe health issues and even death.
  • Water supply contamination.
  • Issues during disposal, especially if mixed with non-hazardous waste.
  • Damage to a company’s reputation, especially if an incident is widely reported in the media.
  • Enforcement action, resulting in prosecution, fines and even imprisonment, as it is against the law.
  • Claims for compensation if people fall ill or someone’s land or property is damaged.
  • Costs, e.g. fines, compensation claims, increased insurance premiums, clean-up operations, loss of business, etc.

In worse cases, hazardous waste can cause fatalities, chronic disease and disability, and irreversible environmental damage.

Hazardous waste management facilities have had their fair share of incidents. Some examples of incidents involving hazardous waste are in the Hazardous waste management facilities: review of incidents report.

How do I find my nearest hazardous waste disposal service?

Local hazardous waste disposal services for England and Wales can be found on GOV.UK. For other UK countries, information is on SEPA (Scotland) and the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Northern Ireland. Local authorities/councils also have further information on their websites on special and hazardous waste disposal services.

Some local authority recycling centres accept hazardous waste but may charge a fee for disposal. It will depend on the type of hazardous waste and whether it is a business or an individual. Some may not even take it, so it is important to check.

Businesses usually need to hire a specialist waste management contractor to collect their hazardous waste and take it to an authorised waste site unless they are registered as carriers. They must check and confirm carrier and consignor registration with the Environment Agency or equivalent for Scotland and Northern Ireland. Checks can be made on their websites.

Under the duty of care requirement, producers must ensure the company they use to transport and dispose of their waste does so correctly and in line with the law. If they do not, the producer can also find themselves liable. The hazardous waste must be carried correctly and disposed of at a site permitted to take the type of waste.


Hazardous waste can cause ill health, injury and even death to humans and animals. It can also damage the environment, including flora and fauna. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance that any business or individual storing, handling, collecting or disposing of hazardous waste does so safely, correctly and in line with the law.

The laws surrounding hazardous waste are numerous and complex. It is essential that all duty holders, whether producers, holders, carriers or consignors, understand their roles and what they need to do to comply with the law. Ignorance of the law is not a defence. Non-compliance can result in hefty penalties, especially if hazardous waste causes a pollution incident, injuries/ill health or environmental harm.

If duty holders are unsure, they should ask a competent waste management specialist or contractor for advice. There is also a wealth of guidance on GOV.UK, SEPA, NRW and DAERA NI.

COSHH Awareness Online Course

COSHH Awareness

Just £20

Study online and gain a full CPD certificate posted out to you the very next working day.

Take a look at this course

About the author

Michelle Putter

Michelle Putter

Michelle graduated with an MSc in wildlife biology and conservation in 2012, but her career has taken quite a different turn to the one expected. She started in health and safety in 2009 and has worked in several industries such as electrical engineering, aviation and manufacturing. She has been working with CPD Online College since 2018 and became NEBOSH Diploma qualified in 2020. In her spare time, Michelle's passions are wildlife and her garden. She has volunteered for many conservation organisations and particularly enjoys biological recording. Michelle also likes hiking, jogging and cycling.

Similar posts