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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, 2020 Edition.

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What Are Universal Wastes?

The regs governing the management of universal wastes are codified in Part 273. Under the federal universal waste management standards, EPA defines “universal waste” as follows [§273.9]:

“[A]ny of the following hazardous wastes that are subject to the universal waste requirements of this Part 273:

(1) Batteries as described in §273.2;

(2) Pesticides as described in §273.3;

(3) Mercury-containing equipment as described in §273.4;

(4) Lamps as described in §273.5; and

(5) Aerosol cans as descriped in §273.6.”.

EPA replaced mercury thermostats with mercury-containing equipment as the third type of universal waste on August 5, 2005. [70 FR 45508] The category of mercury-containing equipment includes mercury thermostats, thermometers, barometers, switches, etc. On December 9, 2019, EPA published a final rule adding hazardous waste aerosol to the universal waste program. [84 FR 67202] The rule is effective on February 7, 2020, but facilities in RCRA-authorized states are not allowed to manage waste aerosol cans as universal waste until their state adopts the rule.

As noted in the above definition, universal wastes are hazardous wastes. For example, certain batteries contain lead or cadmium that make them exhibit the toxicity characteristic. Mercury-containing equipment will typically exhibit the toxicity characteristic for mercury. Spent lamps typically will be hazardous due to toxicity for mercury, lead, or other heavy metals. Thus, absent the universal waste program, these materials would generally be subject to full regulation under RCRA Subtitle C.

Although some states have added other hazardous wastes to their state universal waste programs, only the five types of hazardous wastes noted above qualify as universal wastes under the federal regulations. Each type of universal waste is defined and discussed in Table 1.

Table 1

State universal wastes

Although there are currently only five types of universal waste in the federal program, states that have adopted the universal waste regulations are allowed to add additional wastes to their state universal waste program without first requiring those wastes to be added at the federal level. [§273.80, RO 14468] A number of states have taken advantage of this option. For example, California considers CRTs and other electronic devices to be universal waste within its state borders. The state of Texas has added hazardous paint and paint-related wastes to its universal waste program, as long as certain container and tank standards are observed.

Under a February 22, 2019 rule [84 FR 5816], states cannot add hazardous waste pharmaceuticals to their universal waste program. Hazardous waste pharmaceuticals are regulated under Part 266, Subpart P. [§273.80(d)]

EPA has a great website dedicated to state universal waste programs. As part of that site, the agency has a table showing what states have added universal wastes to their state programs that are different than those in the federal program. See https://www.epa.gov/hw/state-universal-waste-programs-united-states#stateadditions.

Other issues

Three other items are worth mentioning in terms of the definition of universal waste. First, some people want to argue that if they recycle used batteries, mercury-containing equipment, and/or burned-out light tubes, those materials never become wastes. However, EPA notes that used nickel-cadmium batteries, mercury lamps, etc. that can no longer be used for the purpose for which they were produced clearly meet the definition of spent material. Per Table 1 in §261.2(c), spent materials sent for reclamation are solid wastes and are hazardous wastes as well if they exhibit a hazardous characteristic. If hazardous, such batteries, mercury equipment, and lamps must be managed as universal wastes under Part 273 or as hazardous wastes under Parts 260–270. [RO 11789, 14468]

Secondly, the universal waste program applies to the five types of wastes described above regardless of whether those wastes will ultimately be recycled or disposed. [May 11, 1995; 60 FR 25501–2, EPA/530/K-05/019, September 2005, available from https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2015-09/documents/introduction_to_universal_waste.pdf]

Finally, not many people manage any significant quantity of hazardous recalled pesticides and/or mercury-containing equipment. From a practical standpoint, then, the federal universal waste program really boils down to a simplified approach for managing hazardous batteries and burned-out lamps.

Universal waste program structure

Managing hazardous batteries, burned-out lamps, etc. under the less-stringent universal waste program is a choice. If desired, generators may alternatively manage such materials under the full hazardous waste regulatory program spelled out in Parts 260–270. [§273.1(b), RO 14088] Why would anyone not take advantage of the simplified requirements associated with the universal waste program? There are a couple of reasons:

  • Some facilities have mentioned to us that, because the amount of universal waste they generate is fairly small, they choose to continue managing their hazardous batteries and lamps under their formal hazardous waste management system. They don’t want to deal with the expense and potential confusion that a separate waste management system might cause.
  • In some states, crushing hazardous fluorescent light tubes is not allowed under the universal waste program. In order to crush these lamps, facilities in those states will have to manage them as hazardous wastes. [July 6, 1999; 64 FR 36477–8]

If facilities choose to manage the spent batteries and lamps that they generate under the universal waste program, Figure 1 is a “big-picture” view of the management and regulation of these wastes. The top half of the figure shows the flow of universal wastes from their point of generation to their final destination, while corresponding boxes below show the associated universal waste scheme and applicable Part 273 regulation(s). Each of the stopping points on the flowlines is described below.

Figure 1

The regulation of universal wastes starts where such wastes are generated—typically the point at which the generator of the battery, thermometer, lamp, etc. decides to discard that item or send it for reclamation. The generator of the universal waste is called a handler under the Part 273 structure. Each separate facility (e.g., generating facility or collecting facility) is considered a separate handler. [RO 14081] Universal waste handlers come in two varieties, small and large. Management standards for these entities are codified in Subparts B and C, respectively, of Part 273.

Once generated, universal wastes are usually shipped directly to the reclamation or disposal facility. However, they are sometimes transported to an intermediate collection or consolidation facility; these intermediate facilities are also called handlers and are subject to the small or large quantity universal waste handler provisions of Subpart B or C, respectively. [RO 14081] Based on the dual use of the term, handlers of universal waste may generate such wastes, receive shipments of universal waste from offsite, accumulate universal wastes for prescribed periods of time, and ship wastes to another handler, a destination facility, or a foreign destination. Note that handlers cannot treat, recycle, or dispose universal wastes.

The entity that moves universal wastes between handlers and from a handler to a destination facility or foreign destination is called a transporter. Transporter requirements are codified in Subpart D of Part 273. Universal wastes may be transported through multiple intermediate handlers between the generator and destination facility or foreign destination.

Upon leaving the original or intermediate handler, universal wastes are transported to a facility where the wastes are treated, recycled, and/or disposed. This treatment, recycling, or disposal location is called a destination facility and is subject to Part 273, Subpart E. As mentioned earlier, the same universal waste regulations apply whether these wastes will ultimately be recycled or disposed at the destination facility. [May 11, 1995; 60 FR 25501–2]

As noted in §273.60(a) in Subpart E, destination facilities get no breaks at all. They remain subject to the hazardous waste TSD facility requirements in Parts 264–270. Thus, the universal waste program provides a simplified approach for generators (handlers) to store and transport universal wastes, but the destination facilities who actually perform the treatment, recycling, or disposal continue to be regulated under the full Subtitle C program, ultimately resulting in a high standard of care for these hazardous wastes.


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Disclaimer

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.