A Jan. 27, 2015 Nanwerk spotlight article on nanowaste presents a comprehensive picture of possible issues (Note: Footnotes have been removed),
Based on their special chemical and physical properties, synthetically produced nanomaterials (engineered nanomaterials, ENMs) are currently being used in a wide range of products and applications. The Nanomaterial Databank of Nanowerk … currently lists nanomaterials composed of 28 different elements as well as of carbon (fullerenes, CNT, graphene), quantum dots consisting of several semi-conductor materials, a large number of simple nanoparticulate compounds (oxides, carbonates, nitrides) and those made up of complex compounds containing several components. On the one hand, the application of nanomaterials promises reduction potentials and sustainability effects for the environment, for example through resource and material savings ….
On the other hand, we know very little about the behavior of nanomaterials or about environmental and health risks when these products enter various waste streams at the end of their life cycles. A better understanding of the risks in the so-called End-of-Life-Phase (EOL) calls for considering the different disposal pathways and potential transformation processes that nanomaterials undergo in waste treatment plants. In the disposal phase no consideration is being given to either the special properties of nanomaterials or to potential recovery and re-use. …
There is no special legal framework in place for a separate treatment of nanomaterial containing wastes … or the monitoring of the processes. A prerequisite for such a framework would be exact knowledge about the nanomaterials being used, their form (species) and composition, potential transformation processes as well as about amounts and concentrations. Such information, however, is not available, and virtually no studies have been conducted on the EOL phase of products containing nanomaterials. Very little is known about how nanomaterial-containing wastes behave in thermal, biological or mechanical-biological waste treatment plants or in landfills. …
The spotlight article appears to be a reprint of an ITA (Institute of Technology Assessment) NanoTrust Dossier [“Nanowaste” – Nanomaterial-containing products at the end of their life cycle (NanoTrust Dossier No. 040en – August 2014)] by Sabine Greßler, Florian Part, and André Gazsó,
Based on their special chemical and physical properties, synthetically produced nanomaterials are currently being used in a wide range of products and applications. At the end of their product life cycle, nanomaterials can enter waste treatment plants and landfills via diverse waste streams. Little, however, is known about how nanomaterials behave in the disposal phase and whether potential environmental or health risks arise. There are no specific legal requirements for a separate treatment of nanomaterial-containing wastes. Virtually no information is available about the nanomaterials currently in use, their form and composition, or about their amounts and concentrations. The current assumption is that stable nanoparticles (e.g. metal oxides) are neither chemically nor physically altered in waste incineration plants and that they accumulate especially in the residues (e.g. slag). These residues are ultimately dumped. The disposal problem in the case of stable nanoparticles is therefore merely shifted to the subsequent steps in the waste treatment process. Carbon nanotubes (CNT) are almost completely combusted in incineration plants. Filter systems seem to be only partially efficient, and a release of nanoparticles into the environment cannot be excluded. Incinerating nanomaterials contained in products can also promote the development of organic pollutants as undesired by-products. Only few studies are available on the behavior of nanomaterials in landfills. Moreover, recycling such products could release nanomaterials, most likely when these are shredded and crushed.
This dossier offers a good review of the current state of affairs with regard to nanowaste. I haven’t read it exhaustively but it coincides with my understanding of the situation including the fact that there’s not much research on the topic.
BTW, NanoTrust is a project of the Austrian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Technology Assessment (ITA). The nanowaste dossier is also available in German.