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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, 2019 Edition.

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Solvent-Contaminated Rags/Wipes

Solvent-contaminated rags generated from cleaning and degreasing activities may meet the F001–F005 listing criteria if they contain a listed spent solvent or spent solvent mixture. The rags are typically not solid wastes when they come into contact with the solvent—they are products being used for their intended purpose. Thus, the mixture rule does not apply when trying to determine whether or not solvent-contaminated rags are hazardous waste. Instead, EPA’s contained-in policy is more appropriate. Additionally, contaminated rags could exhibit a hazardous characteristic.

Background

Determining whether solvent-contaminated rags are hazardous is an area where EPA has really struggled. For the first 11 years of RCRA, the agency’s position on whether such rags were F001–F005 wastes or not depended on how the listed cleaning solvent was applied to the rag. If the listed solvents were poured or sprayed onto the equipment surface to be cleaned (and not onto the rag) and the rag was used to subsequently wipe up the spent solvent, the contaminated rag was classified as F001–F005 hazardous waste. The reasoning for this was that a solvent is considered spent when it has been used and is no longer fit for use without being regenerated, reclaimed, or otherwise reprocessed. Therefore, when solvents were applied to a surface or machinery (and used for their solvent properties), the solvents were spent before they were cleaned off with the rag. The resulting contaminated rag was covered by the F001–F005 listing. [RO 11249]

On the other hand, if the clean, listed solvents were poured onto the rag first, the resulting dirty rag did not meet the F001–F005 listing criteria. In this situation, the solvent was applied to the rag before it was spent, and the rag was, therefore, not covered by the spent solvent listings. [RO 11249]

Rags regulated on a case-by-case basis from 1991–2013

The above two paragraphs describe EPA’s initial position on solvent-contaminated rags. As a practical matter, rags from both of these scenarios are identical in makeup and would pose similar hazards. In addition, generating and commercial hazardous waste management facilities were not able to verify how the rags became contaminated. Due to these considerations, EPA stated in January 1991 that the regulatory status of solvent-contaminated rags would henceforth be determined by regional EPA offices and authorized states on a case-by-case basis. [RO 11576]

EPA maintained that regulatory determinations or interpretations regarding solvent-contaminated industrial rags should be made by the appropriate regulatory agency since they are based on site-specific factors. These factors may include the degree of hazard posed by the contaminated rags, when a spent solvent is generated, and whether the mixture rule applies. [RO 11813, 11935, 14405] For example, one of EPA’s concerns was that a facility might be improperly disposing spent solvents by mixing them with dirty rags (e.g., pouring a container of spent solvent into a dirty-rag drum) and then sending the mixture to a laundering facility or nonhazardous landfill.

As noted above, rags that pick up incidental amounts of solvent while being used for their intended purpose were regulated for years by regional EPA offices and authorized states on a case-by-case basis. Most regions and states developed specific policies for solvent-contaminated rags. If the rags were to be laundered and then reused, many regions/states did not require hazardous waste management of the rags during storage at the generator’s facility or while being shipped to the laundry. However, if the rags or wipers were contaminated with F001–F005 listed solvents and were to be disposed, many states required them to be managed and disposed as hazardous waste, no matter how the solvent got on the rag.

In regions/states that require hazardous waste management even for nondisposable solvent-contaminated rags, the RCRA regulations allow an exemption to the manifest requirements when small quantity generators (those that generate between 100 and 1,000 kg/mo of hazardous waste) ship hazardous waste offsite for reclamation. [RO 11178] The exemption is in §262.20(e) of the regulations. To take advantage of this exemption, the generation of all hazardous waste (not just the hazardous rags) must be between 100 and 1,000 kg/mo and the conditions in §262.20(e) must be met.

Exclusions for solvent-contaminated rags/wipes

In an attempt to provide national consistency for the management of solvent-contaminated rags and wipes, EPA issued a final rule on July 31, 2013. [78 FR 46448] The rule, which contains two conditional exclusions for solvent-contaminated wipes, applies to:

  1. Wipes that contain one or more of the F-listed spent solvents or the corresponding P- or U-listed unused solvents (e.g., that were spilled and wiped up),
  2. Wipes that exhibit a characteristic if that characteristic results from a solvent listed in Part 261 (e.g., ignitability due to acetone, toxicity due to methyl ethyl ketone), and
  3. Wipes that exhibit the characteristic of ignitability due to the presence of one or more solvents that are not listed in Part 261.

Solvent-contaminated wipes that contain listed hazardous waste other than solvents, or exhibit a characteristic of corrosivity, reactivity, or toxicity due to contaminants other than solvents are not eligible for the new exclusions. For example, wipes that exhibit the toxicity characteristic because they’re contaminated with RCRA metals won’t be excluded. Table 1 contains additional examples that show when the exclusions for solvent-contaminated wipes apply and when they won’t. The next two sections summarize the conditions that must be met for the new exclusions to apply.

Table 1

Exclusion from the definition of hazardous waste

To be excluded from the definition of hazardous waste, solvent-contaminated wipes that will be sent for disposal (to a landfill or combustion facility) must meet the following requirements:

  • The wipes cannot be hazardous due to trichloroethylene.
  • Containers used for accumulation and transportation must be 1) nonleaking and closed, 2) able to contain free liquids, and 3) labeled “Excluded Solvent-Contaminated Wipes.” During accumulation, a container is considered closed when there is complete contact between the fitted lid and the rim, except when it is necessary to add or remove solvent-contaminated wipes. When the container is full, when the solvent-contaminated wipes are no longer being accumulated, or when the container is being transported, the container must be sealed with all lids properly and securely affixed to the container and all openings tightly bound or closed sufficiently to prevent leaks and emissions.
  • Generator accumulation time cannot exceed 180 days from the start date of accumulation for each container (i.e., the date the first solvent-contaminated wipe is placed in the container).
  • At the point of being transported for disposal, the solvent-contaminated wipes must not contain free liquids as determined by the paint filter test (SW–846 Method 9095B), and there cannot be any free liquid in the container holding the wipes. Free liquids removed from solvent-contaminated wipes or from containers holding the wipes 1) are not excluded, 2) must be characterized, and 3) must be managed appropriately based on the hazardous waste characterization.
  • Documentation per §261.4(b)(18)(v) must be maintained at the generator’s site.
  • The disposal facility must be one of the following:
  • A municipal solid waste landfill regulated under Part 258, including §258.40 (design criteria for new landfills);
  • A hazardous waste landfill regulated under Part 264 or 265;
  • A municipal waste combustor or other combustion facility regulated under Section 129 of the Clean Air Act; or
  • A hazardous waste combustor, boiler, or industrial furnace regulated under Part 264, Part 265, or Subpart H of Part 266.

Exclusion from the definition of solid waste

EPA excluded solvent-contaminated wipes that are sent for cleaning and reuse from the definition of solid waste because the agency believes they are more commodity-like than waste-like. To be excluded from the definition of solid waste, solvent-contaminated wipes that will be cleaned and reused must meet the following requirements:

  • The exclusion is extended to wipes contaminated with any of the F- or U-listed solvents, including trichloroethylene.
  • Containers used for accumulation and transportation must be 1) nonleaking and closed, 2) able to contain free liquids, and 3) labeled “Excluded Solvent-Contaminated Wipes.”
  • Generator accumulation time cannot exceed 180 days from the start date of accumulation for each container.
  • At the point of being sent for cleaning, either onsite or offsite, the wipes and the container they are in must not contain free liquids.
  • Documentation per §261.4(a)(26)(v) must be maintained at the generator’s site.
  • The wipes must be sent to a laundry or dry cleaner whose discharge, if any, is regulated under Sections 301 and 402 or Section 307 of the CWA.

Recordkeeping

In order for their solvent-contaminated wipes to be excluded from the definition of solid or hazardous waste, generators must maintain the following documentation at their site:

  • The name and address of the laundry, dry cleaner, landfill, or combustor that is receiving the solvent-contaminated wipes;
  • Documentation that the 180-day accumulation time limit is being met; and
  • A description of the process the generator is using to ensure the solvent-contaminated wipes contain no free liquids at the point of being laundered onsite, or at the point of being transported for offsite laundering, dry cleaning, or disposal.

State implementation

The effective date of the rule was January 31, 2014. Because, the conditional exclusions discussed above are not HSWA regulations, they will not become effective in authorized states until those states adopt the rule. The rule includes requirements and conditions that are less stringent than those required under the base RCRA hazardous waste program. Thus, states, except as described below, are not required to adopt the conditional exclusions (although EPA encourages such adoption to reduce regulatory burden on businesses and maximize national consistency). Some conditions required in the final rule may be more stringent than certain existing state programs. As a result, authorized states whose programs include requirements that are less stringent than the final rule are required to modify their programs to maintain consistency with the federal program.

Ignitable rags

Sometimes, rags are contaminated with unlisted solvents (e.g., isopropyl alcohol) but do not contain free liquids. EPA has discussed how such rags may still be ignitable wastes. This may occur in two situations [RO 14285]:

  1. When a number of solvent-contaminated rags are placed in a container, gravity (sometimes aided by compaction by plant personnel) causes solvent to be squeezed from the rags. As a result, free solvent liquid may form on the container bottom. Any such free liquid in the container should be tested for flash point; if the flash point is <140°F, the entire waste in the container should be considered ignitable.
  2. When solvent-contaminated rags are placed in an environment where oxygen is present, they may meet the ignitable solids criteria in §261.21(a)(2).

In either situation, the exclusions for wipes discussed above could still apply to the ignitable wipes if the conditions in §261.4(a)(26) or 261.4(b)(18) are met.

Also note that under the May 16, 2001 ICR-only rule [66 FR 27266], if a rag is contaminated with F003 spent solvent but does not exhibit a characteristic, it is not an F003 waste at the federal level. State rag policies may be more stringent.

Rags contaminated with used oil

The used oil regulations [at §279.10(c)] state that rags contaminated with used oil that have been wrung out “to the extent possible such that no visible signs of free-flowing oil remain” are not used oil and are not subject to the Part 279 used oil regulations. Instead, wrung-out rags are solid waste (if they will be disposed), and a hazardous waste determination must be made for them just like any solid waste. Used oil wrung from the rags, however, would continue to be subject to Part 279 standards.


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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.