Washington — In Denmark if you have a worn-out mercury or nickel- cadmium battery you want to get rid of, you don't have to pollute the environment by chucking it in the nearest wastebasket. Just walk to your neighborhood pharmacist and give it to him. At that point your old battery enters Denmark's national chemical waste disposal system. It's as neat as that.
From the smallest household to the largest petroleum refinery, Denmark's hazardous waste funnels into the same national stream -- the world's first countrywide chemical waste disposal scheme.
All over Denmark there are collection centers where local industry can deposit its hazardous and toxic residues. From these 200 points they are shipped by truck and rail to one total treatment facility near Nyborg, a seacoast town about 80 miles southwest of Copenhagen. There some 50,000 tons of chemical wastes a year are safely incinerated, detoxified, neutralized, solidified, or otherwise disposed of by the latest technology.
What's more, the messy byproducts of industry that are fed into this national disposal plant not only provide fuel to fire their own extinction but also produce heat that is sold to Nyborg's municipal heating company. And in nippy Nyborg, every B.t.u. of heat helps.
Kommunekemi, the quasi-government company that built the plant about five years ago and operates it, has been so successful and received so much international attention that now a new company, Chemcontrol A/S, has been formed to sell this outstanding cleanup solution worldwide.
All of which explains why Denmark is so far out front in coping with the explosive problem of how to dispose of the noxious wastes that no country wants but every industrial society produces.
Dr. Robert D. Stephens, a chemist with the California Department of Health Services and an expert in this field, considers Denmark's hazardous waste management system the most advanced in the world.
"In terms of a waste system that reaches down into the individual household all the way up to the largest industry, they are 20 years ahead of us," he says.
Denmark, he points out, began work on the problem in the early 1970s, long before hazardous waste became the emotional issue it is throughout the industrial world today.
Only this month do United States Environmental Protection Agency regulations for hazardous waste disposal go into effect under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act that was signed back in 1976. In his first environmental message, President Carter said, "The presence of toxic chemicals in our environment is one of the grimmest discoveries of the industrial age." His proposed "superfund" legislation to pay for the cleanup and management of uncontrolled hazardous waste sites is still inching its way through Congress.
European countries, which have less land to sacrifice to dump sites than the US, recognized the hazardous waste problem earlier than America, passed legislation and set up regulatory controls quicker, and began sooner to deal with the sins of the past -- thousands of ignored, dangerous chemical disposal sites. Hence Europe's leadership position.
Chemical wastes vary widely in character and require entirely different methods of treatment and disposal. Equally varied are the management systems and technologies that different countries have devised to handle them.
For example, Denmark's truly comprehensive national system is, oddly enough, not run by the national government at all but is the offspring of the National Association of Local Authorities -- a co-op of Denmark's county governments.
The United Kingdom has nationwide legislation but no overall national waste management plan such as Denmark has and the US is now beginning to get. The problem is handled by county councils.
One extremely attractive and innovative method of waste management developed in England and now being marketed around the world goes by the trade name of Stablex. There are numerous other stabilization processes, but this one is said to be the best developed as a profitmaking enterprise.
The method involves mixing cement with liquid hazardous waste to form a slurry that can be carried in tankers to a disposal site and poured. Like cement, it sets up as hard as rock, safely locking up contaminants within its molecular structure and producing a product that is safe for land disposal.
Stablex that is buried does leach a little when exposed to rain or ground water. But the quality of the material itself is very high, and for most waste treated this way the leachate (the liquid that percolates through it) is 10,000 to 1 million times improved in quality over its original condition. An independent study by the National Sanitation Foundation shows that in five chemicals tested the leachate contained less than the maximum contaminant levels allowed in EPA's drinking water regulations.
And Stablex transforms the odor of hazardous waste from what is often overpoweringly offensive to "acceptable." The process is said to be especially good for disposing of such heavy metals as mercury and cadmium, which are very difficult to deal with by any other method.
At home in Britain, where Stablex has three large plants, hazardous waste processed in this way is simply dumped into pits in the ground for permanent storage. But, like cement, the load-bearing capacity of Stablex is considerable. The company claims it makes a better foundation for construction of light industry than any other type of landfill, and that it also can be used as a subbase for highways.
The Japanese are investigating using it for reclaiming land from the sea. Canada will use it in the Waste Treatment Center of Quebec to be built in Laval. The Texas Gulf Coast Waste Disposal Authority has selected Stablex to be used in its huge Regional Waste Treatment Center being planned near Houston. And Detroit's auto industry is keenly interested in Stablex for disposing of metal hydroxide sludges.
West Germany's national environmental agencies are advisory only. Its state governments, strong and independent, have disposal programs that vary widely in quality. Bavaria's is almost as sophisticated as Denmark's. Management systems in the heavily industrial Ruhr Valley are also excellent. But some other German states have serious waste- control problems.
The tracking system known as the "tripticket" was introduced by West Germany and is now being copied by other countries. Data from waybills keep tabs on waste as it moves from generator, to shipper, to treater or disposer.
West Germany has discovered a way to file hazardous waste underground for future reference. It has two old salt mines in geologically stable parts of the country, one at Herfa-Neurode, the other at Asse. Under impermeable salt domes 700 meters below the surface, wastes that have been carefully separated and labeled according to strict rules laid down by government authorities are salted away for possible resource reclamation.
The French, Dr. Stephens reports, are not quite as far along as the Danes. But their strong central government (just the opposite of Germany's) has made a major commitment to hazardous waste control and has designed a complicated subsidy system to carry it out. France shares Denmark's philosophy of treating or incinerating hazardous waste rather than burying it in landfills.
If a French company insists on disposing of its hazardous waste in secure landfills, it is free to do so. But if it is willing to pay for more expensive treatment, such as incineration or resource recovery (either of which eliminates the hazard permanently), the government gives it an initial subsidy of 70 percent of treatment charges. The net cost is cheaper than landfilling. The more hazardous the waste, the bigger the percentage of subsidy.
By making it economically so attractive for generators of waste to send their chemical byproducts to these facilities, France is persuading its industry to treat its waste rather than resorting to landfilling or, worse still, illegal "midnight" dumping.
The system, in operation for only about five years, has already generated a huge market for the treatment industry and has dramatically reduced the quantity of wastes that goes to landfills. It has also led to some significant technological breakthroughs by the treatment facilities that share in the government support. The subsidy, which diminishes gradually, will disappear entirely over about an 18-year period. By then, disposal plants will have been built and paid for.
Dr. Valerie Bennett, vice-president of Energy Resources Company in Cambridge, Mass., returning from a recent visit to France, reports that disposal facilities there have become so efficient at recovering metals that they are, for example, now making commercial-grade copper oxide from copper oxide waste and selling it right back to the same customers who paid them to dispose of it.
The Netherlands, because of its low ground levels and high ground water tables, positively prohibits using hazardous wastes as landfill. Some waste is incinerated and some transported to Germany and other countries for disposal.
Dutch and German engineers have used "at sea" incineration to destroy wastes since 1969. The Vulcanus and Vesta, two German-owned, Dutch-operated ships, and one German tanker, Matthias II, are currently engaged in this work, often steaming out to sites in the North Sea to burn up certain types of hazardous waste.
The oceans of the world have long been a favorite dumping ground for everything unpleasant, from sewage sludge and chemical wastes to construction debris. But since 1975 ocean dumping has been regulated internationally through the Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter.
Under the convention, waste can only be disposed of at sea if it is either the best environmental option or will cause no significant harm to marine organisms. Incineration at sea is controlled in the same way. Since 1978, the countries that produce the waste must assure that combustion and destruction is better than 99.9 percent efficient while it is being carried out at sea. For certain chemicals, burning at sea is an attractive alternative to burning on land. For instance, acid gases given off by chlorinated materials are harmlessly absorbed by the sea. All they do is increase the oceans' salt content. In the same, way when hydrochloric acid is absorbed by the sea, it merely increases the chloride content, which also is of no concern.
Experts in many nations now wrestling with the waste- management issue agree that much technology for protecting public health and environment already exists , and what is still needed can probably be done in the fairly near future.
They are also vaguely aware that new approaches are being tried here and there around the world. But no international body has come up with a way to share this knowledge, let alone help countries tackle the waste problem's economic and social aspects.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization's Committee on the Challenges of Modern Society has made a beginning with a pilot study on hazardous-waste disposal that has been under way for about seven years. This group's final meeting on the subject was held in October in Oslo.
Some of the reports -- summarizing what each of NATO's 15 member nations are doing about waste disposal -- have been published, others are still in the works. Their recommendations do not have the force of law, but NATO signatories are expected to act on them.
A broader attempt is being made right now by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris, which for some time has had an environmental subcommittee working on waste disposal problems. OECD's 24 members include not only the Western European nations but Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the US as well.
A group of about 50 handpicked experts on waste disposal chosen from a baker's dozen of these countries met in Paris behind closed doors throughout the first week of November. They pooled what solutions they have to the specific problem of uncontrolled hazardous waste sites -- probably the most threatening part of the waste management challenge.
The idea for this get-together came out of the White House. Staff members of the President's Office of Science and Technology Policy proposed that the project be carried out by EPA and OECD, and that Dr. Stephens be the consultant.
"The thought was that this is a serious problem but one that warrants more than hand-wringing," Dr. Stephens explains. "There are some real nitty-gritty technical issues which need to be addressed. A great deal of work has been done in many OECD nations. Technologies have been developed which are not commonly available in other member countries. There seems to be a lot of provinciality in environmental work across international borders. The objective was to overcome that and to pool our technologies so that we don't spend a lot of time, effort, and money trying to reinvent and re-research technologies which already exist."
Beginning early this year, Dr. Stephens traveled to many of the OECD countries to discover which countries have problem sites, what they were doing about them, and whether they wanted to take part in an international workshop to find out "what we do know, what we don't know, and what we need to know, and then get to work on it.
"Every country I visited, with the exceptions of Norway and the United Kingdom, considers uncontrolled sites a major environmental and public health problem. All these countries are in the same situation the US is in," Dr. Stephens says. "They are now vigorously addressing hazardous-waste management. But this has only begun relatively recently."
The Paris meeting focused on three issues:
* How do you search systematically for uncontrolled sites?
* How can you decide how serious a threat they are?
* What remedial actions are OECD countries taking on an emergency basis and for the long-term?
The idea is to pinpoint gaps in technology that prevent this problem from being dealt with effectively and to set priorities for closing them.
The need to work out a system for searching out abandoned hazardous waste dumps is vital since most of these offensive places have come to light accidentally.
Dr. Stephen's trip showed him that the US is not the only country with an embarrassing Love Canal-type tragedy.
About the time homeowners in Niagara Falls were finding hazardous chemical waste oozing by the jarful into their basements and polluting the air in their homes, residents of Teckomatorp, Sweden, also had a rude awakening.
For 15 years a pesticide manufacturing plant in this agricultural community had disposed of all its waste material onsite. Then a blight affecting fields downstream from the facility was traced to herbicidal materials leaching into a neighboring stream farmers were using for irrigation. The chemicals wiped out a substantial agricultural area. The company went bankrupt, and the Swedish government inherited the problem. Attempts to solve it have already cost the government about 30 million kroner (almost $7 million) and measures are still being taken to protect the local community. Like New York State, Sweden is studying possible effects of the incident on the health of Teckomatorp residents.
In 1972, the United Kingdom set what must be a world record for speedy passage of protective legislation. When the public learned that drums of cyanide waste were being dumped off the back of lorries on wasteland where children play, the public outcry forced through the Deposit of Poisonous Waste Act within 10 days.
Japan's 1975 law, requiring an offending company not only to pay damages for pollution but also to clean up the mess, was enacted partly because of the notorious Minamata incident. The first evidence of poisoning in fish and fishermen's families in this village on the island of Nyushu showed up in the early 1950s. It was not until 1973 that a fertilizer plant finally took responsibility for poisoning 400 people, due to its practice of dumping methyl mercury into Minamata Bay. This is an organic form of the metal which became concentrated 5,000 times in the flesh of fish -- a staple of the local diet.
As a result of this and other incidents, Japan has developed a way to detect the subtle effects on human populations of acute or low-level exposure to complex chemical mixtures. This could help other nations. They have also developed major waste treatment facilities as alternatives to landfill.
But the Japanese have never conducted a systematic search to locate every potentially dangerous dump site that may exist. So Japan was one of the countries attending the Paris meeting, eager to learn what others are doing to sniff out trouble spots.
As for hazardous waste site problems in the U.K., Dr. David C. Wilson of Britain's famous Harwell Laboratory in Oxfordshire told an October technology conference in Washington that in his country "there is no cause for a panic reaction to a problem which is already well under control."
As head of the waste research unit of Harwell's Environmental and Medical Sciences Division, Dr. Wilson reported that only a relatively few sites in Britain pose a serious pollution or health risk, and that most of these can be made safe "fairly simply."
One key to this happy state of affairs is that waste disposal has always been seen in Britain as a handy means to rehabilitate derelict land.
As a small overpopulated country with an abundance of industry, Britain has long felt the need to reclaim every inch of land contaminated by past industrial use. All sorts of waste have been used to fill up unsightly holes such as mining excavations. So in the UK, uncontrolled hazardous waste is just another facet of the land reclamation challenge.
Britain had air and water pollution controls since 1963 -- a good 100 years before the US. In 1947 its comprehensive planning law gave the government control over new disposal sites and their after-use.
Unregulated dumping of chemical wastes ended abruptly in 1972 when the Deposit of Poisonous Wastes Act made it an offense to dispose of such material without first notifying county authorities.
Two years later, the Control of Pollution Act required all sites to be licensed. Now a consignment note system for keeping track of all hazardous waste -- similar to the system originated by West Germany and going into effect in the US this month -- is now being introduced under European Economic Community legislation.
Thus, with uncontrolled dumping now a dark thing of the past, Britain is using ingenious means to clean up and cover over its smelly old dumps and offensive lagoons, converting them into attractive golf courses, public recreation areas, and highways.
In the US, where half the population depends on wells for drinking water, possible contamination of these wells from leaky chemical dumps is the biggest cause for concern. Some tainted wells already have been closed.
In Britain there are no private wells. Virtually the whole population relies on a system of public water with remote and well-protected sources. A survey showed that as of the mid- '70s only 2 percent of hazardous waste sites in the UK presented even a potential threat to ground water.
Britain, however, has had an unpleasant surprise arising out of its 1972 law. Because of its broad definition of hazardous waste, the statute lumps together with extremely toxic wastes those that are only marginally hazardous, even fairly innocuous. An apple crop, sprayed with an experimental insecticide which contains perhaps .0001 percent active ingredients and is probably perfectly edible, for example, is now being delivered to the same secure landfills that are licensed to handle such hard-to-dispose-of materials as those nickel- cadmium and mercury batteries referred to earlier.
Many disposal sites closed. Within six months after passage of the law, only about eight sites were accepting the socalled hazardous waste. Unnecessary concentration of wastes is occurring at these sites. Local people naturally don't like it especially since their neighborhoods are taking in waste from way outside their own region.
Pitsea in Essex outside London is a prime example. For years, local authorities have been trying to close its waste site. Instead, it grew almost overnight into what became known as "the nation's dump." It is still receiving very large quantities of nominally hazardous waste, much of which is no more dangerous than domestic waste.
Hazardous waste is not a simple topic for any country to deal with. Almost everybody needs a "decision tree" to help him grasp its scope and complexity.
Obviously, the ideal solution is to reduce or completely eliminate polluting chemicals from manufacturing processes. Where this is not possible, recovery of usable materials is preferred. If waste must be disposed of, the option most countries have usually considered first is landfill, the cheapest method -- at least in the short run. But today more and more experts believe that landfill should be the last resort as long as the key question is unanswered: Will buried chemicals be safe or will they migrate into water sources?
If waste in landfill is not safe, it must be detoxified. This can be done by incineration on land or sea, or by chemical or biological treatment.
Where toxicity cannot be removed or where metals cannot be destroyed, for example, the physical form of waste can be changed by some process like precipitation so that metals are no longer in solution.
For long-term storage, encapsulation by some system like Stablex is a possibility.
Those methods, essentially, are the full range of options at present.
Chemicals are woven into the very fabric of modern society. Few would prefer to do without the beneficial products they produce. It has taken mankind eons to learn how to remove them from the earth and turn them into useful items. The demand now is to learn how to return their waste byproducts harmlessly to the environment.