Picking Up at Disposal

It's not unusual for garbage to make headlines, but it isn't every day that a waste disposal issue can cause a national calamity. In the past few months, CCA-treated wood has been covered in the news, giving consumers cause to worry about how arsenic leaching from the wood will affect their health. News organizations such as Time magazine and CNN.Com have focused on “toxic” playgrounds with contaminated soil underneath jungle gyms. But the stories all leave off where we should begin.

According to a team of researchers at two Florida universities, the disposal of increasing amounts of chromated copper arsenate (CCA)-treated wood is cause for concern.

“It's a big deal for C&D recyclers,” says Timothy Townsend, one of the lead researchers, who adds that it also is “a potentially big deal to municipal disposers.”

There are several reasons why our industry should pay attention to the research. First, wood represents the largest part of the estimated 136 million tons of building-related construction and demolition debris generated in 1996, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Second, in the next several years, the amount of CCA-treated wood waste is expected to increase from 5 million cubic feet to 35 million cubic feet per year. Third, CCA wood is exempt from current federal hazardous waste management regulations. Fourth, some, if not most, of this discarded wood is headed to unlined C&D landfills. Fifth, and possibly the largest cause for concern, is that current research indicates arsenic a potentially lethal substance is leaching from CCA-treated wood at levels above the national safe drinking water standards.

This scenario is a recipe for a landfill management disaster. And according to some, even placing this wood in lined landfills may not be safe. Certainly, CCA-treated wood waste shouldn't be composted or chipped into mulch, but it's finding its way in there. Burning the wood at waste-to-energy facilities also can be problematic, as the metals are concentrated in the ash.

Every disposal option, it seems, has its roadblocks.

Florida has reason to be concerned about CCA-treated wood disposal in its unlined C&D landfills, especially as construction continues to boom. However, I suspect that if each state examined its waste streams, Florida would not be alone in wrestling with how to dispose of the material.

There's no need to create a mass health hysteria, but this isn't a disposal problem that the industry should ignore.

We were originally tipped off to this story by the EPA, and if they are concerned about it, shouldn't we be?

Patricia-Anne Tom is the managing editor of Waste Age Publications.