What Is Industrial Waste?

Industrial waste affects all manufacturing plants in one way or another. These unwanted by-products of industrial processes require careful handling and disposal as they often negatively affect the environment or human health.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has set out guidelines for disposing of various types of industrial and hazardous waste in the US. Failing to adhere to these federal and local regulations can result in strict penalties, including civil penalties of up to $70,117 per day per violation.

Understanding what industrial waste is, its sources, and how to dispose of it properly is essential to any industry looking to manufacture goods in the US. Our guide will explore the various types of industrial waste and correct disposal practices to ensure your manufacturing practices stay within federal, state, and local guidelines.

Characterizing the Different Types of Industrial Waste

Industrial waste falls into two main categories: non-hazardous waste and hazardous waste. Hazardous waste is harmful to human health, but both types can cause severe environmental harm, which is why they are both regulated by the EPA.

Chemical Waste

Chemical waste is any waste product from industrial activity containing large amounts of chemicals. It can be solid, liquid, or gaseous, making chemical industrial waste one of the largest categories of waste.

Examples of chemical waste include:

  • Organic solvents from laboratory waste
  • Dyes and glazes from the ceramics and textiles industries
  • Brake/transmission fluids

Liquid Waste

Liquid waste falls into main categories: waste from manufacturing or industrial processes or municipal waste generated by residents and commercial activities.

As the name suggests, liquid waste is any waste product that leaves the production facility in liquid form.

Industrial wastewater is a huge environmental concern, especially since it often contains toxic or harmful substances. These substances can leach into the soil, affecting plants, wildlife, and humans.

Industrial wastewater is not always toxic or hazardous but still requires proper disposal. Municipal sewage treatment plants handle wastewater from residential and commercial activities, while industrial plants have to manage their own industrial wastewater disposal to meet EPA guidelines.

Industrial Solid Waste

Industrial solid waste refers to any type of solid by-product of an industrial process. It can include organic matter such as wood, cardboard, or paper and inorganic materials such as scrap metal, plastic, and construction debris.

Common examples of solid industrial waste include:

  • Coal ash from thermal power plants
  • Blast furnace and steel melting slag from iron and steel mills

Many forms of industrial and municipal solid waste are re-usable by other processes as alternative raw or intermediate materials. For instance, coal ash is useful as an ingredient in concrete, agricultural soil additive, or filler for abandoned mines.

The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act governs the proper management and disposal of solid waste, regardless of whether it’s hazardous or non-hazardous. The Act includes an industrial waste management program that industries must follow to remain compliant with the law.

Toxic and Hazardous Waste

The EPA uses four criteria to determine whether a waste product is hazardous or not. These criteria are:

  • Ignitability: How likely the material is to catch fire
  • Corrosivity: How likely the material is to corrode or rust other materials
  • Reactivity: How likely the material is to explode
  • Toxicity: How likely the material is to harm organic life

The EPA considers the first three criteria to pose an immediate and firsthand danger, while toxic chemicals pose a longer-term threat.

Since hazardous industrial wastes pose a danger, they require specialized disposal processes. Toxic waste management practices depend significantly on the type of toxic waste involved – the process for handling hydrofluoric acid is completely different from handling biological waste from laboratories or medical facilities.

The main danger of toxic waste is that it frequently occurs in industrial wastewater, which can easily contaminate drinking water sources. Many of these contaminants can accumulate in the food chain, leading to environmental and health concerns.

Common Sources of Industrial Waste

Chemical Manufacturers

Chemical manufacturers use organic and inorganic raw materials to produce a wide array of products. Much of the industry focuses on various polymers and plastics, but other common products include industrial chemicals like fertilizers, polyesters and other synthetic fabrics, and detergents.

The industry produces a lot of industrial waste, mainly in the form of:

  • Organic-compound containing wastewater
  • Reactive waste
  • Acids and bases

Printing Industry

The printing industry includes the production of promotional materials, magazines, newspapers, and books.

While the industry has made a move towards more sustainable and environmentally-friendly products, it still produces a lot of solid and water waste, including:

  • Sludges containing heavy metals
  • Waste inks
  • Solvents

This liquid waste has a serious environmental impact, especially due to heavy metal contamination. Most heavy metals, like mercury, accumulate in the muscles and tissues of aquatic life. Any predators will accumulate even more heavy metals, concentrating them up the food chain. The result is extremely high concentrations of toxic metals in our food sources, such as mercury in fish such as salmon and tuna.

Petroleum Industry

The petroleum industry covers every aspect of oil extraction, refining, and transport. The most common products of this industry are gasoline and fuel oil, but the by-products of the gasoline manufacturing process are common starting points for plastics, pesticides, solvents, and fertilizers.

Apart from its impact on climate change, the petroleum industry also produces a lot of wastewater containing hydrocarbons such as benzene and toluene, both of which are incredibly toxic. Examples of non-hazardous industrial wastes from the industry include wastewater containing high amounts of sodium, magnesium, and iron.

Paper Industry

The paper industry produces a lot of waste during its harvesting and manufacturing processes. Common waste products include:

  • Ash
  • Pulp mill sludge
  • Dregs
  • Lime mud
  • Organic waste, including scrap wood

However, the industry has started focusing on sustainable waste management practices, reducing waste generation, and re-using waste streams in other industries. Grits and scrap lumber are useful in the construction industry, while dregs and lime mud are excellent soil additives.

More hazardous waste produced by the industry includes industrial wastewater containing:

  • Ignitable solvents
  • Heavy metals

Metal Manufacturing Industry

The metal manufacturing industry involves many aspects, from mining operations to obtaining raw metals to refineries producing the final commercial products.

Every step of the metal manufacturing process produces many hazardous industrial wastes.

One of the most significant challenges that mining companies face is mine tailings, the finely-ground rock that remains after the mine has extracted its valuable minerals. These tailings require proper disposal as they can seriously affect water bodies and the environment.

Steel and iron production produces toxic substances such as cyanide, naphthalene, various phenols, and particulate solids, all of which are harmful to humans.

Metal finishing often produces wastewater containing high quantities of metal hydroxides during the production process. These chemicals can affect environmental quality and result in water contamination of rivers and streams, often with devastating consequences.

As with most industries, the metal industry is looking for ways to sell off its by-products or repurpose them for novel uses and production chains.

Leather Products Manufacturing Industry

The leather industry generates a lot of organic waste. Ironically, cowhide is itself a by-product of the food industry, showing how solid waste can be repurposed for other functions.

Leather manufacturing processes use incredibly toxic industrial chemicals, which leads to toxic industrial wastewater and the potential for water pollution. Common wastes from the tanning process include:

  • Wastewater effluent containing chromium, a carcinogenic heavy metal
  • Solid waste in the form of tanned and non-tanned hide
  • Air pollution from volatile organic compounds, sulfides, and ammonia

How to Dispose of Industrial Waste, Sludge, and Harmful Chemicals

Proper waste management requires understanding federal, state, and local regulations, as well as understanding the precise nature of industrial waste from a production process. Improperly handled waste can result in pollution that can affect numerous ecosystems and heavy fines from the EPA for violating federal regulations.

Waste Minimization

One of the best ways to reduce the costs associated with industrial waste disposal is to produce less waste. Many industries are actively looking for new manufacturing processes that are more efficient and produce less waste. Not only are these modern processes more cost-effective in terms of raw materials, but they also save these industries money on the disposal or storage of industrial waste.

Sustainable water management has become increasingly popular, mainly because of its lessened impact on the environment but also due to cost and efficiency concerns. A cornerstone of this process is reducing industrial waste, especially hazardous waste that requires long-term storage.


Waste recycling is a common form of waste disposal for particular non-hazardous wastes. Unfortunately, not all materials are suitable for recycling and require alternative means of disposal. Common recyclable materials include:

  • Aluminum
  • Paper
  • Certain electronics
  • Non-tempered glass
  • Plastic

Hazardous Waste Disposal Processes

If industrial waste reduction or recycling aren’t feasible options, the next step is to consider either hazardous waste treatment or disposal. There are many options that don’t affect the environment if done correctly, but each industry will have its own methods depending on the type and nature of the waste.

Hazardous industrial waste treatment

Industrial waste remediation can take many forms. Chemicals can undergo ion exchange, oxidation, or neutralization to alter their hazardous properties, while other waste products will require physical, thermal, or biological treatment. Many treatments exist for industrial wastewater, sludges, and solids, but some may result in air pollution and still have an impact on the environment.

Land disposal/storage

If it’s impossible to alter the waste into a safe form, the next step is responsible storage. Land disposal is a common method, but it’s faced scrutiny due to its negative environmental effect. Many industries will have on-site facilities for industrial wastewater, but these run the risk of creating water pollution if they escape into natural water sources or drinking water supplies. Many older waste piles lie above current aquifers that supply drinking water to residents, posing significant environmental and health risks.

Solid waste storage faces similar potential water pollution problems, with contaminants leaching into soil and the water table. Modern land storage facilities have filters, impermeable layers, and leachate collection systems that help reduce the impact of solid waste on the environment. These systems sit below surface water levels and have groundwater monitoring systems to prevent accidental soil or water pollution.

Remedial action

Older, uncontrolled waste lagoons and water bodies represent a significant source of polluted water. Remediation is the alteration of these sites to prevent further environmental damage.

One remediation option is to remove the hazardous waste and transport it to a more modern, secure facility. Unfortunately, off-site remediation is expensive as it requires the preparation of a new site and the transportation of large volumes of hazardous waste.

A simpler option is on-site remediation, which involves the construction of a new facility in the same location and treatment of any existing water pollution contamination. Many plants also use full containment, which consists of capping the waste site and blocking off any groundwater flow with cutoff walls.

Taking care of manufacturing and industrial waste can be a challenging task. INGENIUM has worked with clients from various industries, including life sciences, semiconductor plants, and general manufacturing. We understand the challenges facing these sectors, especially when it comes to managing waste responsibly and effectively.

To find out more about our services or to get guidance on your waste management process, get in touch with our team today!

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