The most common hazardous waste regulations deal with the many industrial byproducts that are potentially harmful to humans or the environment. Many common or everyday products are associated with possibly toxic chemicals, compounds, solvents, and elements. Hazardous waste regulations are designed to prevent dumping of harmful waste and assure the best or proper disposal of waste. Regulation has increased as many chemical waste items, old and new, have been identified as toxic or potentially toxic. Hazardous waste is a significant environmental issue in developed and developing countries, but the level of regulation varies between countries.
Hazardous waste is generally defined as any substance that is toxic to human beings or other living things. It can occur in a liquid, solid, or vapor form. Thousands of new chemicals appear on the market each year, and their potential harm to living things is often determined after their appearance. In the United States, is has been estimated that 70% of hazardous waste is associated with chemical products manufacturing, and accordingly hazardous waste regulations address this source. Other industries producing the remainder of hazardous waste include coal, petroleum, and electronics, all targets of common hazardous waste regulations in the United States and elsewhere.
In the United States, attention to the problem of hazardous waste increased during the 1970s. The Resource Conservation and Recovery act, like other hazardous waste regulations, focused on standardizing the meaning of "hazardous" and regulating responsibility for waste. The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) was intended to improve standards of waste disposal and to identify dangerous disposal sites and clean them. Other hazardous waste regulations in the United States sought to clarify liability in rectifying problematic waste disposal sites and establishing ways for people affected by hazardous waste to be compensated.
All ecosystems are susceptible to hazardous waste in different ways, so regulations sometimes try to deal with damage to specific environmental systems, like oceans, rivers, air or land. In the past, many types of waste were simply disposed of in these locations without regard for their possible harmful effects. The United States federal program Superfund, established under CERCLA, is one example of a program designed to address sites where such practices occurred.
International efforts have been made to create hazardous waste regulations. The United Nations has a broad agreement on hazardous waste, and the European Union has made efforts to deal with specific issues like electronic waste, which can be hazardous. As radioactive waste can be harmful for thousands of years, its management will remain an important issue.