Compliance Corner.


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, 2020 Edition.

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Recycling Is Treatment

When EPA first issued the regulations that implemented the RCRA statute in 1980, most materials destined for recycling were not defined as solid waste and, therefore, were not regulated as hazardous waste. Unfortunately, some entities abused this recycling incentive in ways that damaged the environment. Recognizing that additional controls were needed, the agency revised the definition of solid waste in 1985 to capture many recycled materials under RCRA regulatory control. To continue to encourage recycling, however, an exemption exists in the regulations such that the units in which hazardous wastes are recycled do not need a RCRA permit and are not subject to any RCRA management standards (with the possible exception of air emission provisions). [January 4, 1985; 50 FR 643]

But, make no mistake: recycling is treatment. [RO 11461, 11745, 11880, 12865, 13279] Recycling meets both parts of the treatment definition. This is actually the driving force behind the recycling exemption, since such operations would otherwise be subject to permitting under §270.1(c). Because it’s a form of treatment that EPA wants to encourage, an exemption exists for recycling processes in §261.6(c–d).

Scope and applicability

This discussion applies to the regulations in §261.6(c–d) exempting hazardous waste recycling from RCRA permitting/management standards. The effect of the recycling exclusions provided in EPA’s DSW rules are not covered here.

The exemption from RCRA permitting/management standards for recycling processes in §261.6(c–d) is summarized in Figure 1. The figure represents a recycling facility that accepts hazardous spent solvents from a number of offsite generators. The solvents are recycled in a solvent still (distillation column), with the recovered solvent stored for resale back to industry. Still bottoms are sent to a RCRA incinerator; if the bottoms are hazardous via characteristic or listing, they are manifested to the incinerator. The regulatory status of the various pieces of equipment and processes noted in Figure 1 are discussed below.

Figure 1

Shipment of hazardous waste to a recycling facility

Facilities that generate hazardous waste sometimes ask whether they can legally ship their waste to offsite recycling facilities that are themselves exempt from RCRA permitting. The answer is yes. Although §262.20(b) notes that generators must designate on the manifest a receiving facility that is permitted to handle the waste, the definition of a designated facility in §260.10 includes permit-exempt recycling facilities. Therefore, a generator may list a recycling facility as the designated facility on a hazardous waste manifest. The agency notes, however, that the generator, transporter, and designated facility must comply fully with manifest and manifest discrepancy requirements for shipments of hazardous waste to recycling facilities. [RO 13663]

Storage before recycling

Facilities that conduct recycling typically store hazardous wastes prior to the recycling operation. If they do, such storage is fully regulated under RCRA, despite the exempt status of the recycling units. [§261.6(c)(1)] A facility’s eligibility for the exemption from permitting/standards for the recycling process itself is independent of whether RCRA-regulated storage of hazardous wastes is being conducted before the wastes are recycled. [RO 12581] If storage is occurring, it is subject to, among other things, 1) permitting under Part 270; and 2) container or tank standards in Part 264/265, Subpart I or J, respectively. In Figure 1, for example, storage of F005 spent solvent prior to recovery in the still is subject to RCRA permitting and Subpart J tank standards.

A permit is not required for recyclers who do not store hazardous waste prior to processing. [RO 11131, 11404, 11411, 11765] Where a waste received at a recycling facility is fed immediately into the recycling process, storage is not occurring. Conversely, waste held in a container or tank for several days or weeks prior to recycling clearly is being stored. Uncertainty occurs when a facility holds waste for a short period of time after receipt but prior to recycling, as illustrated in the following examples.

If hazardous waste is fed directly from tank trucks into the recycling unit, how long can the trucks remain onsite before they require permitting as storage containers?

According to EPA, “federal regulations do not specify an allowable ‘holding time’ prior to the waste being introduced to the recycling process; however, the appropriate EPA regional office or authorized state regulatory agency may specify such a holding time on a site-specific basis, defining a time at which storage begins…. [S]ome states and regions do allow up to 24 hours for the off-loading of a hazardous waste into the recycling process before the waste is considered to be stored, thus requiring a storage permit.” [RO 11411] Additionally, when asked about a specific situation where it was understood that transport vehicles remain onsite for no more than 24 hours, EPA noted that it would not require the tank trucks to obtain a storage permit for off-loading the hazardous waste. [RO 11386, 13127] In other guidance, EPA stated “holding of drums for a few hours may not be storage,” but this is a site-specific determination. [RO 11365] Bottom line: check with your state to determine if they set a time limit on waste transfers.

Bulk shipments and drums of spent solvent received at a recycling facility are pumped into a feed tank that is hard-piped to a distillation unit. When the distillation column is idle (i.e., at night), solvent remains in the feed tank. Does this practice constitute storage before recycling that is subject to a storage permit? What if any time there is spent solvent in the feed tank, a pump on the bottom of the tank operates and feeds solvent to the distillation unit such that the tank never contains solvent when the distillation unit is not in operation?

In the first case, the feed tank is used to store spent solvent (albeit for short periods of time) and is considered a hazardous waste tank that needs a permit and is subject to Subpart J regulations. In the second case, the feed tank is not considered to be used for storage and is therefore not subject to permitting or regulation as a hazardous waste tank. Rather, it is used as a means of conveyance and is viewed as part of the exempt recycling unit. [RO 11365, 12895]

Storage at generator facilities

If the hazardous waste recycling is conducted at the same facility at which the waste was generated, the facility may be just a generator. Assuming that the recycling is not done in a manner that satisfies the §261.4(a)(8) closed-loop recycling exclusion, storage of such waste prior to recycling can be accomplished in 90/180/270-day accumulation units that are exempt from RCRA permitting but are subject to §§262.16–17 requirements. [RO 11880] If the recycling at the generator facility does qualify for the §261.4(a)(8) closed-loop recycling exclusion, the material flowing around the closed loop is not a solid or hazardous waste, and so the tank-based storage would not be subject to RCRA at all.

Recycling units are exempt except for air emission standards

While storing hazardous waste prior to recycling is subject to RCRA permitting/management standards, the recycling unit itself is not. [RO 11383] “EPA does not presently regulate the actual process of recycling…only the storage, transport, and generation that precedes it.” [August 20, 1985; 50 FR 33542] The parenthetical sentence in §261.6(c)(1) exempts the recycling process from permitting/management standards, with one exception. [RO 11238, 11814, 11880] Because EPA believes that processing recyclable materials may pose risks through direct emissions to the atmosphere, recycling processes are subject to organic air emission standards included in Part 264/265, Subpart AA (applicable to process vents) and Subpart BB (applicable to fugitive emissions from equipment leaks). [§261.6(c)(1) and (c)(2)(iii)] Therefore, the solvent recovery still and its associated ancillary equipment in Figure 1 will be subject to these standards.

Note, however, that recycling units at generator facilities (that do not require RCRA permits) are exempt from the Subpart AA and BB standards. [§§261.6(d), 265.1030(b)(2), 265.1050(b)(2)] Recycling units are subject to Subparts AA and BB only if there is a RCRA permit required for some other unit at the same facility. [RO 11881]

In addition to air emission standards, the recycler must obtain an EPA ID number, use the manifest and report manifest discrepancies, and submit biennial reports. [§261.6(c)(2)]

Mobile recycling units

Mobile equipment, such as truck-mounted solvent recovery units, can qualify under the §261.6(c) recycling exemption. Such units would still be subject to the RCRA air emission standards, however. [RO 12619, 13280]

Partial recycling by the generator is still exempt

Sometimes, hazardous waste is partially recycled by the generator before being sent offsite for further legitimate recycling. Per EPA guidance in RO 11880, processing activities at the generator’s site are considered the first step in the recycling process and remain exempt under §261.6(c)(1).

Storage after recycling

Per the last, parenthetical sentence in §261.3(c)(2)(i), materials reclaimed from hazardous wastes that are used beneficially (e.g., reclaimed solvents) are not solid or hazardous wastes. Thus, the recovered solvent in Figure 1 is a product, not subject to any RCRA standards. (This exemption from the derived-from rule is based on the reclaimed material not being burned for energy recovery or applied to the land.) A tank holding such product is also exempt from RCRA.

Residues from recycling hazardous waste (such as the still bottoms in Figure 1) may continue to be hazardous, based on operation of the derived-from rule. Storage of hazardous residues from the recycling process will be subject to RCRA requirements: permitting under Part 270 (unless conducted in a 90/180/270-day accumulation unit), and container or tank standards in Part 262, 264, or 265. (Residues from exempt recycling units are newly generated wastes and therefore may be stored in 90/180/270-day accumulation units—see RO 11420, 12850, 12865, 13280.)

Some processes can never be exempt recycling

The RCRA recycling exemption does not apply to processes analogous to land disposal or incineration. [January 4, 1985; 50 FR 643] Therefore, recycling in land disposal units (e.g., surface impoundments), burning for energy or material recovery, and incineration do not qualify for this exemption. [RO 11131, 11873] A surface impoundment, waste pile, or other land disposal unit receiving hazardous waste must be permitted and comply with the unit-specific TSD facility standards in Part 264 or 265. Burning hazardous waste in boilers or industrial furnaces is subject to RCRA permitting and the technical requirements in Part 266, Subpart H. Incineration of hazardous waste is subject to permitting and the RCRA management standards in Part 264/265, Subpart O.


EPA guidance addresses a multitude of examples involving potentially exempt hazardous waste recycling.

Qualifying processes

Listed below are examples of recycling situations that qualify for the permitting exemption of §261.6(c–d). (Note that in stating its opinion that a given recycling process is permit-exempt, EPA always couches such pronouncements with the disclaimer that the facility should consult with its state or regional RCRA authority for binding determinations.)

  • Crushing spent dry cleaning filters to remove solvents and the subsequent reclamation of the removed solvents. [RO 11670]
  • Gasifying a mixture of listed hazardous sludges, oils, and other materials to recover syngas. EPA determined that the gasification unit would qualify for the recycling exemption since it was not an incinerator, boiler, or industrial furnace. [RO 11905, 11985]
  • Grinding a mixture of lead-based paint (LBP) chips and wood debris from LBP removal operations to prepare the waste for shipment to a lead reclaimer. [RO 11880]
  • Nonthermal reclamation of foundry sands with subsequent return of the material to the foundry process. [RO 12873, 13749]
  • Processing baghouse dust to remove lead, with subsequent shipment of the dust to a fertilizer producer. [RO 13507]
  • Recovering silver salt sludges from spent photoprocessing fixer solutions. [RO 11814]
  • Recovering usable solvent from a spent solvent via distillation, thin-film evaporation, etc. [RO 11200, 12422, 12581, 12865, 13280, 14089]
  • Recovering zinc from K061 electric arc furnace dust via a process involving mixing with coal or coke. [RO 11353]
  • Slurrying and subsequent removal of sulfur and chlorides from baghouse dust. [RO 13566]

Other examples

Are facilities used to regenerate hazardous spent activated carbon eligible for the recycling permit exemption?

No. The definitions of “carbon regeneration unit” and “incinerator” in §260.10 make it clear that both direct-flame and nonflame carbon regeneration units are not incinerators but are thermal treatment devices. However, EPA has clarified [February 21, 1991; 56 FR 7200, RO 11955, 13491, 14242] that such carbon regeneration units are subject to either Part 264, Subpart X requirements or Part 265, Subpart P standards; thus, these processes would not be eligible for the §261.6(c–d) exemption from RCRA permitting.

Is a RCRA permit required for recycling hazardous wastes by blending, mixing, or other physical processes in order to produce fuels, if no prior storage of the wastes occurs?

Yes. The agency notes that vessels used for storing/treating hazardous waste fuels that will be burned in boilers or industrial furnaces are subject to regulation/permitting as hazardous waste tanks. [§266.101(c)] This provision is applicable to storage/treatment by the burner as well as to such units at intermediate facilities between the generator and the burner. EPA states that there could be some recycling operations at a fuel blending facility that are exempt from permitting, even though the fuel blending itself is not exempt. [April 13, 1987; 52 FR 11820, RO 11238, 11411, 11497, 11881, 13512]


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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.