Study Urges EPA to Regulate Nanotech Waste


The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies just released a 58-page report posing the question “Where Does the Nano Go?” The report, sponsored by The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, urges the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to make regulations specifically for the disposal of materials developed using nanotechnologies.


There are over 500 company-identified nanotech consumer products on the market today, according to the report. Nanotechnologies have the potential to enhance energy-efficient products, environmental remediation, water treament, and monitoring, according to an EPA White Paper.

But the effects of many nanomaterials on the environment is largely unknown, while some nanowaste is known to be hazardous.

“Nanomaterials are built on the scale of molecules or even atoms, and on a scale that is just a fraction of the size of most living cells. At this scale, materials are affected by quantum effects and other physical and chemical properties that are not significant at larger scales.” — Where Does the Nano Go: End-of-Life Regulation of Nanotechnologies report

Current regulations regarding how to manage and dispose of these materials are inefficient says the report. “There’s no single law that regulates nanotechnology from beginning to end,” said John Pendergrass, report author and director of the center for state, local, and regional environmental programs and co-director of international programs with the Environmental Law Institute, during a live webcast of the report’s presentation today.

In the report Pendergrass and colleague Linda K. Breggin take an in-depth look at the two Environmental Protection Agency laws—the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA or Superfund)—that currently covers the end-of-life management of nanotechnology.

The report recommends that the EPA make decisions about whether and how to apply RCRA and CERCLA to nanomaterials. It also recommends that the EPA educate companies — particularly small companies and startups — about how the hazardous waste and Superfund programs can apply to nanomaterials.

For those of you who don’t have time to shift through all 58 pages, here are a few key findings from the report:

  • The RCRA likely covers some nanowastes.
  • But, some nanowastes will probably be excluded from regulation under the RCRA because they aren’t classified as “solid wastes.”
  • The EPA could add a nanowatste category to the list of hazardous wastes, but it seems unlikely that they’ll do that.
  • Nanowastes could change characteristics when disposed compared to their characteristics in bulk form. While it is still unknown exactly how these alterations would effect the environment, it is possible that some nanowastes that should be considered hazardous won’t be, since they’d be perfectly eco-friendly when tested prior to disposal.
  • Right now, the most likely way to deal with any hazardous nanomaterial disposal is in court. The RCRA lets “the EPA and citizens to sue to remedy conditions where solid or hazardous waste handling, storage, treatment, or disposal have the potential to endanger health or the environment.”
  • Many companies that generate nanowastes are just not informed about how to manage and dispose of their wastes properly.
  • CERCLA, enacted in 1980, gives the federal government the authority to clean up the release of hazardous substances into the environment.
  • If the parties responsible for a hazardous mess aren’t able to pay for the cleanup, government-funded cleanups function as a backup (with the “Superfund”). The rules for these cleanups should be broad enough to cover nanomaterials, but the report notes that this is just “in theory.”
  • It is unclear if nanomaterials “are or will constitute hazardous substances under the Superfund statute.”


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I’m glad someone else thought about nanotech waste. I mean just because they’re working with things on a nano-scale doesn’t mean that they can’t be harmful to the environment. They should still be regulated.

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