Forget plastics. The glow is off computers. Hazardous waste disposal is the high-tech growth industry of the 1990s.
So say some of the 500 environmental entrepreneurs, executives and consultants who attended a two-day conference on how to profit from America’s toxic waste problem.
“Two or three years ago if you’d said you’re having a hazardous waste business conference, you’d get very few people showing up,” said Stephen L. Irish, whose company extracts heavy metals from contaminated waste water.
But it was standing room only at a session last week in the Copley Plaza Hotel’s ornate ballroom.
The subject: “Identifying Market Opportunities in the Hazardous Waste Industry,” or, as one person attending put it, “Given that companies don’t publicize their hazardous waste problems, how do we identify potential customers?”
Other sessions covered how to comply with environmental regulations, how to minimize legal liability, “Surviving Hypergrowth” and “Preventing Your Employees from Becoming Your Archrivals,” or how to protect toxic trade secrets.
The beverage served everywhere was mineral water.
Hazardous waste processing will be a $5-billion industry this year and could hit $12 billion by 1994, said conference organizer Richard S. Golob, publisher of Hazardous Materials Intelligence Report, a weekly newsletter.
No Shortage of Chores
There’s no shortage of stuff to clean up. The Environmental Protection Agency has identified 30,000 potentially hazardous sites, of which 1,000 qualify for Superfund cleanup money. According to Golob, other surveys have estimated that up to 430,000 U.S. manufacturing plants may have some kind of contamination.
And the Department of Energy has estimated that managing, disposing and cleaning up radioactive and hazardous contamination at its facilities could cost from $53 billion to $92 billion, DOE spokesman Will Callicott said.
The manufacturing of pharmaceuticals, consumer products and even decaffeinated coffee produces hazardous waste.
As environmental regulations get stiffer, companies that can deal with infectious waste, radioactive contamination and dirty drinking water are in special demand.
Irish’s enterprise was born in 1988 from tougher state and federal ground water regulations. Electroplating plants produce rinse water containing heavy metals, including nickel, lead and a carcinogenic chromium compound, said Irish, director of marketing for UNC Reclamation, a Mulberry, Fla., subsidiary of UNC Inc.
UNC Reclamation installs equipment that extracts metals from rinse water, Irish said. The residue is turned into metal salts that can be sold back to the electroplaters, he said.
The service costs electroplaters less than disposing of their metallic sludge in landfills. And it eliminates their long-term legal liability, Irish said. The process also ensures that no contaminants will leak from a landfill into ground water.
“Clearly it’s the intent of Congress to keep anything from going into the ground,” Irish said. “Reclamation is what they want.”
UNC Reclamation generated a slight profit last year and sales are expected to hit $12 million this year, he said. The company plans to expand into cleaning up toxic sludge from batteries that have been dumped into some Gainesville, Fla., lagoons.
The environmental boom already has produced some hazardous waste millionaires, Golob said. One high-tech entrepreneur is Alan S. McKim, who founded Clean Harbors Inc. of Boston in 1980 at age 25. The company said it now has nearly 1,000 employees and had sales of $73 million last year.
But the industry has to cope with more than its share of regulation and red tape, said Thomas Moran, vice president of DartAmerica of Freehold, N.J.
DartAmerica transports toxic, low-level nuclear and solid waste to approved disposal sites. It is regulated by the EPA, the federal Department of Transportation, and has an array of permits that allow it to truck waste in 48 states. It takes three full-time employees just to handle shipping permits, Moran said.