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The Universal Waste Option for the Management of Hazardous Waste

The Universal Waste Option for the Management of Hazardous Waste

Recently, Waste Management LampTracker, Inc. was fined $118,800 for violations at its Kaiser, MO facility where it collects and recycles universal waste lamps, mercury-containing equipment, and batteries (US EPA news release).  Its violations include:

  • Failure to maintain adequate aisle space in storage areas.
  • Failure to close and label hazardous waste containers.
  • Failure to conduct RCRA Training for its hazardous waste personnel.
  • Failure to close universal waste containers (emphasis mine).

It is the last of these that jumped out at me.  How is it that a company that specializes in the handling of universal waste could make such a fundamental oversight in its handling?  Perhaps you should take a close look at the way you handle universal waste at your facility to ensure fines such as these don’t happen to you.

The universal waste regulations, found at 40 CFR 273 and summarized well on this US EPA website, were created in 1995 to reduce the regulatory burden for commercial facilities that might otherwise be generators  of hazardous waste and to reduce landfill disposal and increase recycling of certain kinds of hazardous waste.  Since the wastes originally considered for this regulation are generated in a multitude of commercial activities, they were designated as universal waste.  Any industrial, municipal, or commercial facility may take advantage of the universal waste regulations if it generates the type of hazardous waste specified.  The four types of hazardous waste identified by the US EPA that may be handled as universal waste are:

  • Lamps or bulbs.
  • Batteries.
  • Mercury-containing equipment (formerly:  mercury thermostats only).
  • Pesticides.

I will only address the first three of the above in this article.  More information about recalled or cancelled pesticides can be found here:  What is a Universal Waste Pesticide?

In order to avoid the kinds of fines faced by WM LampTracker you must ensure your universal waste is handled properly.  First of all, the universal waste must be labeled; any of the following is acceptable:

  • Universal Waste – Battery/Lamp/Mercury-Containing Equipment”
  • Waste – Battery/Lamp/Mercury-Containing Equipment”
  • Used – Battery/Lamp/Mercury-Containing Equipment”

If you don’t have a container to label, you can place a sign over a designated storage area or use your imagination to ensure a label is visible and legible.

Speaking of containers, the requirements for universal waste vary based on the type.  Only lamps are required to be in closed containers from the moment of generation.  Batteries and mercury-containing equipment need only be placed in containers if they show signs of leaking or damage.  In any case where a container is required, it must remain closed at all times unless adding or removing waste.

The biggest regulatory relief afforded by the universal waste regulations is the allowance of up to one year for on-site accumulation.  You may accumulate universal waste even longer if the sole purpose is to have enough to justify an off-site shipment.  In other words, hold on to that half-full 5-gallon bucket of batteries until it is full; no matter how long it takes.  Keep in mind that you must be able to justify your decision to retain the waste beyond one year.  In any case, you must be able to identify the date of accumulation through labels, signage, or an inventory system.

Refer to 40 CFR 273 for a full list of on-site waste management practices you are allowed and the regulatory requirements.  Keep in mind that any of the below may result in the generation of a solid waste and possibly a hazardous waste.

  • Sorting of batteries by type or combining in one container.
  • Discharging residual charge in batteries or regenerating them.
  • Disassembling batteries or battery packs.
  • Removing batteries from consumer products.
  • Removing electrolytes from batteries.
  • Remove mercury ampules from equipment.

Notice that there are no waste management methods mentioned for lamps in 40 CFR 273, so where does this leave bulb crushers?  It does say that a handler “must immediately clean up and place in a container any lamp that is broken…” without indicating if the breakage is accidental or a deliberate form of on-site management.  I advise that bulb crushers be considered carefully before use.  Many states require a permit, quarterly reports, and/or air monitoring to ensure limits on airborne mercury concentrations are not exceeded when bulb crushers are used.  The burden of compliance with these state regulations may outweigh any benefits to crushing your bulbs.  Also, the crushed bulbs may no longer be accepted as universal waste and may need to be handled as hazardous waste.  Some states, such as Indiana, forbid the crushing of lamps if you intend to manage them as universal waste (more).

Spills of universal waste should be immediately cleaned-up and placed in a container to minimize any further release.  Incidental breakage of a universal waste such as broken bulbs, leaking batteries, cracked thermometers, etc. does not preclude their handling as universal waste as long as they have been placed in a container to minimize any further release.

And finally, off-site shipments of universal waste must be transported by a Universal Waste Transporter and are prohibited from being transported to anything other than another Universal Waste Handler, a destination facility (defined at 40 CFR 273.9), or a foreign destination.

After this point, your regulatory requirements depends on how much universal waste you accumulate (not generate) on-site.  If you accumulate <5,000 kg of universal waste you are a Small Quantity Handler.  In addition to the above handling requirements, you must inform applicable personnel of proper handling and emergency procedures for your universal waste.  This may be in the form of classroom training, on-the job instruction, signs, labels, etc.  If you accumulate >5,000 kg of universal waste, you are a Large Quantity Handler and are required to obtain an EPA ID# unless you already have one, and to ensure that all employees are thoroughly familiar with proper waste handling and emergency procedures.  This language is deliberately similar to that in 40 CFR 262.34(d)(5)(iii) for Small Quantity Generators of hazardous waste.  Other than the need for an EPA ID# and the level of employee awareness, there is little difference between a LQH and SQH of universal waste.

All of the above are Federal requirements.  You must carefully research your state requirements as well to ensure full compliance.  Many states have added to the list of materials managed as universal waste or have not fully adopted all of the original 1995 regulation or subsequent amendments.  A US EPA directory of state-specific requirements can be found here.

As always, proper training is important to achieve a full understanding of not only the universal waste regulations, but of all hazardous waste regulations under RCRA.  My one-day training events meet the US EPA requirements for RCRA Training and the US DOT requirements for HazMat Certification.  I can also conduct on-site training for all of your applicable employees in one day.