As a school principal, you’ve started the school year off with a vast array of tasks—including supervision of the science labs and cleaning supply closets and classrooms. After all, they can become hot spots for hazardous waste generation—waste that must be managed and disposed of properly throughout the year to keep your building, the students, and the staff inside safe.

As a school leader, you play an important role in managing your building’s hazardous waste, guaranteeing compliance, and ensuring that the faculty and staff are following best practices for storage and disposal.

School leaders who do not follow federal and local regulations regarding hazardous waste management run the risk of incurring fines and penalties. Beyond that, improper action could have a damaging effect on school safety, surrounding communities, and the environment. To ensure proper planning at the beginning of the school year, educate yourself now on the necessary steps for managing your school’s hazardous waste.

Hazardous Waste Defined

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines hazardous waste as “waste with properties that make it dangerous or capable of having a harmful effect on human health or the environment.” Once an item containing hazardous properties is no longer usable, it becomes hazardous waste.

Hazardous waste items have ignitable, corrosive, reactive, or toxic characteristics. To determine whether a product is considered a hazardous waste item, review its safety data sheet, manufacturer information, label, and ingredients. You can also refer to specific guidelines provided by your hazardous waste management services provider.

Hazardous waste must be properly identified and separated to keep incompatible materials segregated. Typical segregation categories include aerosols and flammables, corrosive acidic and corrosive alkaline items, toxics, oxidizers, universal waste, and sometimes reactives.

  • Aerosols and flammables catch fire easily and have a flash point of less than 140 degrees Fahrenheit or 60 degrees Celsius.
  • Corrosive acidic and alkaline items easily corrode materials or human tissue. Acidic materials contain a pH of less than 2, while alkaline materials have a pH of 12.5 or higher. Many cleaning items commonly used in schools have corrosive characteristics.
  • Toxics, such as rat poison, are harmful or fatal when ingested or absorbed.
  • Oxidizers support combustion and include chemicals sometimes found in school labs, such as hydrogen peroxide, sodium perchlorate, and bromine.
  • Universal waste includes batteries, light bulbs, and pesticides. Universal waste is one of the more commonly produced, yet overlooked, wastes in a school building and must be managed by the same standards as hazardous waste.
  • Reactives can release toxic fumes when heated or mixed with water. (They are not typically found in a school building setting.)

To keep your hazardous waste management program compliant, consult resources that outline your local county and city regulations, as they are often more stringent than federal regulations.

Hazardous Waste in Schools

In a school building, there are several commonly found items that have hazardous properties. Nearly every classroom generates universal waste such as batteries, fluorescent light bulbs, and electronic waste—including televisions, computer monitors, and cameras—that are considered hazardous and therefore must be managed by those standards.

Because of the nature of instruction, science education classrooms and labs are a common area where hazardous waste is generated. Examples of hazardous materials found in school science labs include acetone, bleach, acids and bases, sodium metal, cyanides, and mercury thermometers.

In a school’s custodial and maintenance closets, hazardous waste takes form as cleaning supplies such as ammonia, chlorine bleach, drain openers, tile cleaners, strippers, varnish, and petroleum-based finishers. Hazardous maintenance supplies include glues, paint, paint thinner, roofing tar, stains, ballasts and capacitors, fluorescent light bulbs, thermometers, and thermostats. Groundskeepers may have fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides, and poisons on school grounds.

Art and woodworking classrooms can also generate hazardous waste. These classrooms may contain photographic chemicals, certain acrylic paints, paint thinners, wood stains, glues and other adhesives, spray fixatives, oil-based paints, and petroleum-based inks. Additionally, cosmetology classrooms may have hair dyes, nail polish, nail polish remover, hair spray, and hair gel that fall into this category.

Everyone associated with these areas of the building share the responsibility to minimize the amount of waste produced and to dispose of it in a way that has the least impact on human health and the environment.

Hazardous Waste Storage

There are several best practices for bagging, segregating, and storing hazardous waste prior to disposal or recycling that will help ensure the safety and full compliance of your school’s hazardous waste management program.

  • Seal items. Prior to storing any hazardous waste items in a bin, place them individually in a sealed plastic bag. This will keep the items from mixing and causing a reaction. Double-bag any leaking containers, and add absorbents to prevent any issues.
  • Use separate bins. Incompatible hazardous waste items must remain separate, so it’s recommended to use separate accumulation bins that are designated for each of the following categories: aerosols and flammables, toxics, corrosive acidic, corrosive alkaline (basic), oxidizers, and universal waste.
  • Label containers. Once the initial item is placed within a bin, be sure the bin is labeled as required by regulations, including labeling the container as “hazardous waste” or “universal waste” and including the accumulation start date. If an inspector visits your school, proper labeling is one of the first things they will examine and evaluate. States often have specific hazardous waste labeling requirements and also require weekly inspections of hazardous waste accumulation containers and storage areas.
  • Scout a safe storage area. Store accumulation bins in a dedicated, permanent, clean, and organized hazardous waste area. The ideal location is away from traffic areas, electrical panels, perishable or consumable product storage, and dock doors. The containers should be closed at all times except when adding or removing waste, and the containers should be placed on an impervious surface, such as pavement or tile, without floor drains.
  • Keep relevant supplies and information together. Store containment bags, spill kits, absorbents, and other relevant supplies in the secure storage area. The waste bins should be clearly visible at all times, and emergency numbers, training materials, and informational posters should be on display in plain sight.

Hazardous Waste Disposal

After proper training, it’s up to school facility managers and janitorial team members to correctly identify and store hazardous waste generated on-site. Do not dispose of any materials or waste in sinks or drains without prior approval from the local publicly owned treatment facility (or if your school’s sinks or drains discharge to a septic tank system).

To ensure hazardous waste is managed in a safe manner that is in full compliance with all levels of government-mandated regulations, schools typically hire a hazardous waste disposal service company to offer compliance training in addition to pickup and disposal services. These disposal companies have highly trained personnel who understand the various classifications of hazardous materials and can serve as a resource for your school. Once the hazardous waste is picked up from the school, the service provider assumes the responsibility of the waste as they transport it to a treatment facility.

Hazardous Waste Minimization

In order to keep hazardous waste to a minimum, schools should also work to reduce or eliminate as many of their waste streams as possible. If your school is not producing hazardous waste, you can avoid disposal costs, potential spill cleanups, and potential health and safety hazards, and you’ll be spared extra record-keeping and storage requirements.

It’s crucial to manage your building’s hazardous waste in a safe and compliant manner throughout the school year. Without it, you run the risk of receiving fines or putting your students, staff, local community, and environment at risk.

Maricha Ellis is vice president of marketing and sales operations for Stericycle Environmental Solutions in Indianapolis.