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In the United States, hazardous wastes are subject to regulations mandated by the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). Every month, we provide clear, in-depth guidance on a different aspect of the RCRA regulations. The information presented here is an excerpt from McCoy’s RCRA Unraveled, 2021 Edition.

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Electronic Wastes (E-Wastes)

Electronic products (computers, printers, cell phones, tablets, pagers, two-way radios, televisions, H2S monitors, etc.) are integral to industry operations. The rapid development of new technology has brought with it huge amounts of obsolete electronics destined for storage, disposal, or recycling, which are typically know as e-wastes.

The acceleration of e-waste generation has caused several states to begin looking at ways to recycle and reuse the equipment and keep it out of landfills. Many states have enacted some form of e-waste management law. Although the goal of each law is similar—to avoid landfill disposal or incineration of certain types of e-waste—approaches taken to achieve that goal differ significantly.

At the federal level, EPA is trying to develop national policies/regulations to avoid patchwork implementation by the states. To that end, the agency has been working with stakeholders to improve awareness of the need for recovery of electronics and access to safe reuse and recycling options. In 2015, an estimated 3.1 million tons of obsolete electronic products, about one percent of the municipal solid waste stream, were generated in the United States. Of this, 1.3 million tons were collected for recycling. These obsolete electronics include products such as TVs, VCRs, DVD players, video cameras, stereo systems, telephones, and computer equipment. These data came from an EPA report entitled Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: 2015 Tables and Figures, July 2018, available at https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2018-07/documents/smm_2015_tables_and_figures_07252018_fnl_508_0.pdf.

E-wastes often exhibit the toxicity characteristic

Lead, mercury, and cadmium are among the substances of concern in electronics when they become wastes. These substances are included in products for important performance characteristics but can cause resulting e-wastes to exhibit the toxicity characteristic. Lead was used in glass in television and computer CRTs as well as solder and interconnects; thus, many CRTs leach lead at higher than RCRA regulatory levels. [RO 14723] Mercury is used in small amounts in bulbs in flat panel computer monitors and notebook computers. Cadmium has been widely used in Ni-Cd rechargeable batteries for laptops and other portables. Newer batteries (nickel-metal hydride and lithium ion) do not contain cadmium.

Although traditionally thought to be nonhazardous [RO 14723], computer components other than the monitor may also fail the TCLP for lead, resulting in wastes exhibiting the characteristic of toxicity. Generators must consider this potential hazardous characteristic when their equipment becomes a solid waste. In one study, 1 of 23 computer central processing units (CPUs) failed the standard TCLP, although 21 of 41 (51%) exceeded the regulatory value for lead when tested in a modified large-scale version of the TCLP (where the units were disassembled and leached in their entirety). In the same report, 6 out of 6 laptop computers, 0 out of 3 computer keyboards, 15 out of 15 computer mice, and 33 out of 43 cell phones failed the standard TCLP for lead. [T.G. Townsend et al., “RCRA Toxicity Characterization of Computer CPUs and Other Discarded Electronic Devices,” July 2004, available at http://www.understandrcra.com/rccd/cputoxic04.pdf]

Management of e-wastes

Electronic devices, including certain computer equipment, telephones, radios, calculators, etc. continuing to be used for their intended purpose are products—not wastes. Materials used and taken out of service by one person are not considered wastes if a second person reuses them in the same manner without reclaiming them. [§261.2(e)(1)(ii)] Many businesses that take electronic devices out of service do not know if they can be reused or have to be sent for reclamation/disposal. Such entities sometimes send them (under a contract) to a reseller who evaluates the equipment, may make minor repairs to it, and ultimately either sells it for reuse or sends it for reclamation/disposal.

EPA has clarified that a user sending electronic equipment to a reseller for potential reuse is not a RCRA generator. Electronics undergoing repairs before resale or distribution are not being reclaimed and are considered to be products “in use” rather than solid wastes. Therefore, used electronics from a business are not considered solid wastes when sent to resellers and would not be subject to RCRA requirements. [July 28, 2006; 71 FR 42930, June 12, 2002; 67 FR 40511, RO 14668] If the reseller decides after evaluation to send some of the used devices for reclamation/disposal, the reseller is the generator of a solid waste in most cases and must therefore make a hazardous waste determination for that material.

In some situations, used electronic equipment cannot be reused and must be reclaimed or disposed. A number of states (e.g., California, Colorado) have added certain e-wastes to their universal waste program, which eases the regulatory burden on facilities sending such equipment for reclamation or disposal.

EPA’s guidance on the regulatory status of used electronic devices destined for reclamation is as follows:

“While used electronics sent to a reseller are not solid wastes, used electronics sent to a recycler could, under certain circumstances, be considered spent materials undergoing reclamation and could therefore be solid wastes. However, EPA believes that in some instances, electronics sent for recycling do not resemble spent materials. To determine how electronics must be managed in particular situations, users and recyclers of electronics should check with their implementing agencies to see which, if any, RCRA Subtitle C requirements apply when used electronics are sent toward specific recycling pathways.” [RO 14668]

Any unused (usually off-specification) electronics that are sent for reclamation are not solid wastes per Table 1 in §261.2(c), because they are considered commercial products since they haven’t been used. [RO 11689] Table 1 also indicates such unused electronic devices are not subject to speculative accumulation provisions when recycled. Of course, unused devices sent for disposal are solid (and potentially hazardous) wastes.

Finally, used electronics from households and very small quantity generators are excluded from regulation under RCRA per §§261.4(b)(1) and 262.14(a), respectively.

In addition to the above general guidance, EPA has provided rules and/or guidance for the management of specific e-wastes: cathode ray tubes (CRTs) and printed circuit boards.

Cathode ray tubes (CRTs)

Cathode ray tubes (CRTs) are a major component of older-style computer monitors and television screens. These units contain glass, which may contain lead to protect the user from x-rays present inside the CRT. Older CRTs typically contain an average of 4 pounds of lead, while newer CRTs contain closer to 2 pounds.

Research has been conducted at the Florida Center for Solid and Hazardous Waste Management (Gainesville, Florida) to determine if color and monochrome CRTs fail the TCLP for lead. The results indicate that color CRTs typically exceed the 5-mg/L TCLP limit for lead and consequently may be considered hazardous wastes when recycled or discarded. This stymied CRT recycling efforts and caused a large number of CRTs to be put into indefinite and indeterminate storage.

Of the 30 color CRTs tested, 21 (70%) exceeded the TCLP for lead. (The 9 color CRT samples that did not fail the TCLP limit were not believed to be representative samples due to an absence of leaded frit.) None of the six monochrome CRTs that were tested failed the TCLP. (Color CRTs typically use a leaded frit seal between the funnel and face; no such seal is present in monochrome CRTs. In addition, color CRTs commonly contain more lead in the funnel section.) [T.G. Townsend et al., “Characterization of Lead Leachability From Cathode Ray Tubes Using the Toxicity Characteristic Leaching Procedure,” December 1999; see also RO 14723]

As a result of fast-breaking technological advances in electronic equipment (e.g., increasing computer speed and memory, high-definition television, and flat-panel computer monitors), most CRTs are discarded at end of life. Because so many CRTs are being discarded, EPA and a number of states have investigated ways to encourage recycling of these wastes instead of land disposal.

Current regulatory status of CRTs

The RCRA regs define a CRT as follows: “a vacuum tube, composed primarily of glass, which is the visual or video display component of an electronic device.” [§260.10] Based on a final rule issued July 28, 2006 [71 FR 42928], EPA regulates CRTs as follows:

  • Used CRTs that continue to be used as a computer or television, as is or after minor repairs, are not solid wastes. One option for getting rid of used CRTs you don’t want is to give them away to schools or other entities. Such CRTs are not wastes if they continue to be used for their intended purpose.
  • Used, intact CRTs (defined as CRTs whose vacuum has not been released) are excluded from the definition of solid waste if they are sent for recycling within the United States—including glass processing, glass manufacturing, or smelting—in lieu of disposal. [§261.4(a)(22)(i)] Such units are not subject to any RCRA requirements at the generator facility. “[W]e are not imposing speculative accumulation requirements on persons who use computers or televisions and then send the intact CRTs to collectors and glass processors.” [71 FR 42932] Thus, they could be held indefinitely at the generator’s facility without becoming solid waste, provided there is a reasonable expectation they will be recycled at some point. However, CRT collectors (defined as persons who receive used, intact CRTs for recycling, repair, resale, or donation) and CRT glass processing facilities (defined as persons receiving intact or broken CRTs, breaking intact CRTs and/or further processing broken CRTs, and sorting or otherwise managing glass removed from CRTs) are subject to the speculative accumulation provisions in §261.1(c)(8).
  • Used, broken CRTs (defined as glass removed from its housing or casing whose vacuum has been released) are conditionally excluded from the definition of solid waste if they 1) are recycled within the United States, and 2) meet certain conditions. [§§261.4(a)(22)(iii), 261.39] The conditions include storage prior to recycling in a labeled, closed container or a building with roof, floor, and walls; compliance with speculative accumulation provisions; compliance with use constituting disposal requirements in Part 266, Subpart C; transportation in a labeled, closed container; and processing conducted in a building with roof, floor, and walls and at temperatures below that capable of volatilizing lead from the CRTs.
  • Used CRTs sent for disposal are clearly solid wastes and hazardous wastes if they exhibit a characteristic.
  • Unused CRTs would be considered off-spec commercial chemical products if they were found to be inoperable after manufacture. If these unused CRTs are sent for reclamation/recycling, they are not solid wastes per Table 1 in §261.2(c). They also are not subject to speculative accumulation provisions. Therefore, as long as the unused CRTs or glass from the unused CRTs are kept segregated from used CRTs or glass from used CRTs, they would not be regulated under RCRA. If these materials are mixed with regulated materials, the combined materials would be subject to the applicable provisions of the July 28, 2006 CRT rule. [RO 14757]
  • Unused CRTs sent for disposal are solid wastes and hazardous wastes if they exhibit a characteristic.
  • Used CRTs from households are excluded from regulation under RCRA.
  • CRT glass cullet (that contains lead) used as a raw material in the video display manufacturing process is a product (commodity) and not a waste. [RO 14734]

Another option for managing used computer monitors is to send them to a reseller as noted previously.

Can crushed, treated CRT glass be used as alternative daily cover (ADC) at Subtitle D, nonhazardous waste landfills?

RO 14844 discusses the use of crushed, treated CRT glass as ADC at Subtitle D, nonhazardous waste landfills. The letter confirms that 1) crushing and stabilizing glass from CRTs that exhibit the toxicity characteristic for lead is considered hazardous waste treatment, and 2) use of crushed glass as ADC is considered land disposal. Therefore, the crushed, treated CRT glass would need to meet land disposal restrictions (LDR) treatment standards prior to placement in the Subtitle D landfill as ADC. Additionally, EPA noted that such use of CRT glass may require state approval under §258.21. One of the finer points of this guidance document is determining the point of generation (POG) of the CRT glass. Under the CRT exclusion at §261.4(a)(22), recycled CRTs and CRT glass are not solid waste. So, where is the POG if the entire CRT is not recycled—at the initial generator facility or the recycler? EPA noted that the point at which any person decides a CRT component (e.g., plastic, glass, wiring) will be discarded is the POG of a solid waste, and the person making the decision would have to make a hazardous waste determination. For example, if the recycling facility decides to dispose CRT glass in a landfill, the recycling facility would be required to make a hazardous waste determination.

Processed CRT glass sent to smelters

To further promote recycling of CRTs, when EPA added the CRT recycling exclusion in July 2006, the agency added an exclusion from the definition of solid waste for processed CRT glass sent to lead smelters for recycling. [§261.39(c)]

To understand this exclusion better, let’s take a closer look at CRT recycling. When CRTs are recycled, they contain two types of glass. The first type, panel glass, is basically the screen at which we are used to looking. The second type, funnel glass, is the back side of the CRT which is usually underneath a plastic housing (i.e., the back of the unit). In addition, processed glass (i.e., glass chunks) is generally called “cullet.” Thus, the terms “panel cullet” and “funnel cullet” are commonly used in CRT recycling to refer to processed panel glass and processed funnel glass.

Because funnel cullet generally contains a lot more lead than panel cullet, it is more difficult to recycle. However, it makes a good substitute for virgin silica that is used as a fluxing agent in lead smelters. Thus, funnel cullet is the beneficiary of the §261.39(c) exclusion. Be aware that the exclusion is lost if the processed CRT glass is speculatively accumulated.

Will the §261.39(c) exclusion apply if processed CRT glass is used as a fluxing agent for copper smelting?

No. While the degree of processing that is required for use in copper smelting appears to be the same as that required for lead smelting, lead is not recovered when CRT glass is used for flux at a copper smelter. For this reason, EPA did not include copper smelters in the §261.39(c) exclusion.

Emerging technologies have made it possible for CRT recyclers to process CRT glass into lead and silica sand. This has the potential to expand CRT glass recycling because there is a greater market for these individual components compared to the market for leaded CRT glass. Does the §261.39(c) exclusion apply if CRT glass is processed into the primary components of lead and silica sand, which are then sold for a variety of commercial uses?

No. While EPA supports the development of technologies that can recycle CRT glass in an environmentally protective fashion, the agency noted that the exclusion “only applies to processed CRT glass sent for recycling to a CRT glass manufacturer or a lead smelter.” [RO 14839] This is not to say that CRT glass cannot be recycled using the new technologies—only that the exclusion would not apply, and the CRT glass would be a solid and potentially hazardous waste during these activities.

However, the agency noted in RO 14835 that processed CRT glass used, without reclamation, as an effective substitute for virgin fluxing agent at copper smelters would be excluded from RCRA regulation as an effective substitute for a commercial product under §261.2(e)(1)(ii). Furthermore, this interpretation is in line with a similar finding for foundry sands used as a fluxing agent at copper smelters. [RO 11900]

Exporting CRTs

Export provisions were also included in the July 28, 2006 rule to address concerns about CRTs exported and recycled under unsafe and/or inappropriate conditions in other countries. CRTs exported for recycling are not solid wastes, but only if they meet the following requirements:

  • Used, intact CRTs exported for reuse (i.e., not for processing or other reclamation) are not solid wastes if the exporter sends a notice to the applicable EPA regional administrator and keeps specific documentation. [§261.41]
  • Used, intact CRTs exported for recycling (i.e., for processing or other reclamation) are not solid wastes if the exporter notifies EPA of the export, receives written consent from the receiving country, and complies with speculative accumulation provisions. [§§261.4(a)(22)(ii), 261.40]
  • Used, broken CRTs exported for recycling (i.e., for processing or other reclamation) are not solid wastes if the exporter notifies EPA of the export; receives written consent from the receiving country; complies with speculative accumulation provisions; and meets the same storage, labeling, and transportation requirements noted previously for used, broken CRTs. [§§261.4(a)(22)(iii), 261.39(a)(5)]
  • Processed CRT glass being exported to a CRT glass manufacturer or a lead smelter is not a solid waste and is not subject to any export requirements unless it is speculatively accumulated. [§261.39(c)] “Processed CRT glass” is defined as glass that has been broken, separated, and sorted, or otherwise managed after it has been removed from CRT monitors. To meet this definition, the glass does not have to be cleaned; that is, the coatings do not have to be removed. Under these conditions, EPA considers the processed CRT glass to be a commodity rather than a waste. [RO 14805]

On June 26, 2014 [79 FR 36220], EPA finalized new reporting requirements for exported CRTs. The purpose of the new reports is to gather data on actual exports. In the pre-existing regulations, the notifications provide data only on intended exports. The agency made five changes:

  1. To clarify who is responsible for complying with the CRT export responsibilities, including reporting, EPA added the following definition of “CRT exporter” to §260.10:

“CRT exporter means any person in the United States who initiates a transaction to send used CRTs outside the United States or its territories for recycling or reuse, or any intermediary in the United States arranging for such export.”

Multiple entities may meet the definition of “CRT exporter.” The agency does not want duplicative paperwork submissions, so those regulated parties must decide who will perform the exporter duties. Nevertheless, all parties are jointly and severally liable for any regulatory noncompliance.

  1. An annual report covering CRTs exported for recycling is now required by March 1 of each year. The report must include quantities, frequencies of shipments, and ultimate destinations (i.e., the facility or facilities where the recycling occurs) of all used CRTs exported for recycling during the previous calendar year. A certification statement is also a part of this new annual reporting requirement. [§261.39(a)(5)(x)]
  2. In the notification that exporters must send to EPA prior to actual shipment, the name and address of each interim and final recycler(s) and the estimated quantity of used CRTs to be sent to each facility must be included. [§261.39(a)(5)(i)(F)]
  3. The agency is now requiring periodic (rather than one-time) notifications, covering activities for periods of 12 months or less, for CRTs exported for reuse. Additional information must be included in these periodic notices that will allow more effective compliance monitoring by EPA. [§261.41(a)]
  4. Persons who export CRTs for reuse must keep copies of normal business records, such as contracts, demonstrating that each shipment of CRTs will be reused. If the documents are written in a language other than English, an English translation of the records must be made available within 30 days if requested by the agency. [§261.41(b)]

This final rule was effective December 26, 2014 in all states. EPA does not authorize states to administer federal import/export functions in any section of the RCRA hazardous waste regulations. This promotes national coordination, uniformity, and the expeditious transmission of information between the United States and foreign countries. Although states would not receive authorization to administer the federal government’s export functions in the June 2014 rule, state programs are still required to adopt provisions in the rule that are more stringent than pre-existing federal requirements to maintain their equivalency with the federal program. [79 FR 36228] Thus, for example, persons who export used, intact CRTs for reuse had to comply with the revised notification requirements (in Item 4 above) as of December 26, 2014, regardless of whether or not they had already submitted a one-time notification under the previous requirements. [79 FR 36226]

EPA maintains a list of FAQs about CRT regulation at https://www.epa.gov/hw/frequent-questions-about-regulation-used-cathode-ray-tubes-crts-and-crt-glass.

Circuit boards in electronic components

Printed circuit boards are a major component in computers and other electronic products. Sometimes these components are removed from electronic devices for recycling/reclamation. EPA has given guidance specific to these materials:

  • Whole, used circuit boards meet the definition of scrap metal and are exempt from RCRA under §261.6(a)(3)(ii) if recycled [May 12, 1997; 62 FR 26013, RO 11689, 14155];
  • Whole, unused circuit boards are off-spec commercial products and are not solid wastes if sent for recycling/reclamation [§261.2(c), Table 1, RO 11689]; and
  • Shredded used or unused circuit boards are not solid wastes if they are 1) free of mercury switches, mercury relays, nickel-cadmium batteries, and lithium batteries; 2) stored in containers prior to recovery; and 3) sent for recycling. [§261.4(a)(14), RO 14692]


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Considerable care has been exercised in preparing this document; however, McCoy and Associates, Inc. makes no representation, warranty, or guarantee in connection with the publication of this information. McCoy and Associates, Inc. expressly disclaims any liability or responsibility for loss or damage resulting from its use or for the violation of any federal, state, or municipal law or regulation with which this information may conflict. McCoy and Associates, Inc. does not undertake any duty to ensure the continued accuracy of this information.

This document addresses issues of a general nature related to the federal RCRA regulations. Persons evaluating specific circumstances dealing with the RCRA regulations should review state and local laws and regulations, which may be more stringent than federal requirements. In addition, the assistance of a qualified professional should be enlisted to address any site-specific circumstances.