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, 2018 Edition.

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©2018 McCoy and Associates, Inc. All rights reserved.

Universal Waste Handler Requirements

A small quantity handler of universal waste is a handler that always has less than 5,000 kg (11,000 lb) of total universal waste (batteries, pesticides, mercury-containing equipment, and lamps, calculated collectively) onsite at any time. Any handler that has more than this amount in storage is a large quantity handler. All universal waste handlers start out on January 1 each year as a small quantity handler (assuming they have <5,000 kg of total universal waste onsite on that date). As long as they don’t have 5,000 kg or more of these wastes onsite at any time throughout the year, they remain small quantity handlers the entire year. If they have 5,000 kg or more onsite at any one time, they become large quantity handlers and remain in that status for the remainder of the calendar year. (They will start over as small quantity handlers if they have <5,000 kg of total universal waste onsite on the succeeding January 1st.) [RO 14107]

A facility that normally has about 1,000 kg of universal waste onsite receives an unusual shipment of 10,000 kg of such material in August. Less than a month later, the 10,000 kg of universal waste is sent to a destination facility, and the facility resumes its practice of storing only about 1,000 kg onsite. What is the designation of that facility with regard to universal waste?

Until the date the 10,000-kg shipment was received, the facility is a small quantity handler. From the date the shipment was received until December 31 of that year, the facility would be a large quantity handler. Beginning January 1st of the following year, the facility reverts to being a small quantity handler. [RO 14107]

EPA clarified that, for handlers managing universal waste mercury-containing equipment, if the mercury has not been removed from the equipment, then the weight of the entire device is counted toward the 5,000-kg limit. If, however, the mercury-containing component has been removed, only the component being managed as mercury-containing equipment is counted. [70 FR 45516]

Sometimes, an owner/operator will hire a contractor to conduct activities that generate universal waste (e.g., relamping a building) instead of using their own personnel. Contractors who remove universal waste from service at an owner’s/operator’s site are considered handlers and cogenerators of the waste (with the owner/operator as the other cogenerator). As cogenerators, both have liability as universal waste handlers, and the two parties should mutually agree as to which will perform the universal waste handler duties specified in Part 273. [July 6, 1999; 64 FR 36474, RO 14719]

Handling spent hazardous batteries and lamps as universal waste is an alternative to full hazardous waste management of these materials. As such, there are separate accounting systems for these two programs. Universal wastes managed under Part 273 do not have to be counted in a facility’s monthly hazardous waste generator category determination. [§262.13(c)(6)] Thus, you can be a large quantity handler of universal waste while a small quantity generator of hazardous waste (and vice versa). That is, your status under one of the programs is independent of the other.

Very small quantity generators of hazardous waste have the option of managing their hazardous waste batteries and lamps as 1) hazardous waste under the reduced requirements of §262.14 (in which case such wastes would be hazardous wastes and would have to be counted when determining if the facility is generating less than 100 kg of hazardous waste/month), or 2) universal waste under the Part 273 program (in which case such wastes would not be subject to hazardous waste management requirements and would not have to be counted against the 100-kg monthly hazardous waste generation limit). [§§262.13(c)(6), 273.8(a)(2)] Therefore, if a generator manages their hazardous waste batteries and lamps as universal wastes under Part 273 and does not generate any other hazardous waste, he/she is not subject to any other RCRA Subtitle C regulation. [64 FR 36475]

Specific handler requirements

Table 1 summarizes the requirements applicable to the two classes of universal waste handlers. The table notes that the requirements for both types of handlers are identical with the exception of notification, training, and waste tracking/recordkeeping requirements. A useful document for reviewing a handler’s compliance with the universal waste regulatory requirements is Protocol for Conducting Environmental Compliance Audits of Used Oil and Universal Waste Generators Under RCRA, EPA/300/B-00/002, March 2000, available from

Table 1

Waste management

Waste-specific management requirements for all handlers are summarized below:

  • Universal waste batteries must be stored in a way that prevents releases to the environment. This requirement doesn’t necessitate the use of a Part 265, Subpart I container for battery accumulation; instead, you could just use a box or, per EPA guidance, just shrink-wrap a bunch of batteries on a pallet. [RO 14146] Any universal waste battery that shows evidence of leakage, spillage, or damage must be placed in a closed, structurally sound container.

As long as the universal waste battery case is not breached, handlers may conduct the following activities without becoming destination facilities: discharging or regenerating batteries, removing batteries from consumer devices, disassembling multibattery packs, and removing electrolyte from batteries (in which case the battery case may be opened while the electrolyte is being removed). Any battery electrolyte removed that is a characteristic hazardous waste is subject to full RCRA regulation. See Case Study 1.

Case Study 1

If the batteries are damaged, EPA’s guidance is as follows: “A handler of universal waste may only manage broken or damaged hazardous waste batteries as universal wastes if the breakage or damage does not constitute a breach in the cell casing…. Therefore, universal waste batteries are intended to be intact (i.e., where the casing of each individual battery cell is not breached).” [RO 14634] Where batteries are damaged but the casing is not breached, §§273.13(a) and 273.33(a) allow them to continue to be managed as universal waste if they’re appropriately containerized.

Spent lead-acid batteries can alternatively be managed under the minimal requirements of Part 266, Subpart G. Generally speaking, generators, collectors, and transporters of intact spent lead-acid batteries are exempt from most RCRA standards under Part 266, Subpart G. [RO 14147] Therefore, we think the most prudent manner of managing broken lead-acid batteries is to manage them as D002/D008 hazardous waste under the full hazardous waste management program.

  • Universal waste pesticides must be kept in closed, structurally sound containers, tanks, or transport vehicles that prevent releases to the environment. [Tanks must also meet Part 265, Subpart J standards, except for §§265.197(c) and 265.200.]
  • Storage of universal waste mercury-containing equipment is similar to batteries. Any mercury-containing equipment with noncontained elemental mercury or that shows evidence of leakage, spillage, or damage must be placed in a closed, structurally sound container that will prevent mercury emissions into the environment. The agency has included additional handling requirements for removal and management of ampules, open tubes, and ancillary parts containing mercury. Generally, removal of these mercury-containing devices must be done 1) in a manner that prevents breakage, 2) over or in a containment device (e.g., tray or pan), and 3) in a well-ventilated area that meets OSHA exposure levels for mercury. [§§273.13(c)(2), 273.33(c)(2)] For equipment that does not contain mercury in an ampule, the mercury housing must be sealed air-tight. [§§273.13(c)(3), 273.33(c)(3)]
  • All unbroken universal waste lamps must be stored in closed, structurally sound containers that are adequate to prevent breakage. Two- or three-ply cardboard boxes may be used for this purpose. (By far the majority of handlers we talk to use the boxes that new lamps come in for storage of burned-out lamps; however, other handlers are using shipping containers specially designed for spent lamps, often supplied by the destination facility to which the lamps are shipped.)

Broken or leaking lamps must be placed in a closed, nonleaking container capable of preventing the release of mercury and/or other hazardous constituents (e.g., a waxed-fiberboard drum). [64 FR 36479] Regarding management of accidentally broken lamps under the universal waste program, the universal waste regulations and preamble are somewhat vague. In guidance, the agency clearly states that broken lamps may be managed as universal waste; however, state regulations may not allow that practice. [EPA’s RCRA FAQ Database,] Some states (including California) allow leaking, broken, or otherwise damaged lamps to be managed as universal (as opposed to hazardous) wastes, if repackaged according to the regulations. This allowance is often conditioned on whether the transporter and destination facility agree to accept such broken lamps under the universal waste program. For example, some receiving facilities will accept up to 10% broken lamps in a shipment of universal waste. However, some states take the position that, if (on a site-specific basis) the universal waste lamps are being broken intentionally, the lamps may be subject to all hazardous waste regulations and/or appropriate enforcement action may be taken. So, check to see if your state or receiving facility has a specific policy regarding incidentally broken lamps.

EPA has funded the development of a training module for the management of fluorescent and mercury-containing lamps, which could be used as partial fulfillment of the universal waste training requirement. Titled Training Module (1-hour version) for Generators and Handlers of Fluorescent and Mercury-Containing Lamps (and Ballasts), it is available online at

No treatment allowed

When EPA promulgated the universal waste program, the agency determined that handlers (who are not required to comply with the full set of RCRA standards for the universal wastes that they manage) should not treat universal wastes.

Except for certain battery management activities and mercury ampule removal, which normally would be considered treatment but are specifically allowed by the regulations, handlers may not treat universal wastes except when responding to releases. [RO 14124] This raises the ugly question of crushing burned-out fluorescent light tubes.

When people found out in the early 1990s that fluorescent light tubes often failed the TCLP for mercury and were, therefore, subject to RCRA Subtitle C regulation, many began crushing the bulbs. Crushing facilitated significant volume reduction, minimizing hazardous waste transportation costs. However, facilities and EPA soon began worrying about the potential mercury vapor exposure to personnel who were operating the crushing equipment, and so a number of facilities quit crushing lamps because of personnel safety issues.

When EPA added hazardous lamps to the list of universal wastes in July 1999, the agency made it clear that the prohibition against treatment for universal waste handlers includes a prohibition on crushing lamps. [64 FR 36477–8] EPA believes that crushing lamps in containers meeting the minimal universal waste provisions would not control emissions of mercury. Therefore, handlers are not allowed to crush lamps under the federal universal waste regulations. If a facility wants to crush lamps, it will have to continue to manage them under the full hazardous waste standards in Parts 260–270 (with the exception noted below).

Some states allow crushing of lamps as part of their universal waste programs (including, for example, Colorado). EPA addressed this issue as follows: “EPA will consider authorization of state programs that include provisions for controlling treatment or crushing of universal waste lamps, where the state program application includes a demonstration of equivalency to the federal prohibition…in controlling emissions of hazardous constituents.” [64 FR 36478]

Accumulation location

The Part 273 universal waste regulations do not limit the location or number of locations at which a handler may accumulate universal wastes. [60 FR 25527] Thus, spent batteries or burned-out bulbs may be accumulated at the point of generation, or they may be accumulated in a maintenance shop or any other convenient location. Satellite accumulation provisions do not apply to universal wastes; thus, universal wastes may be accumulated in as many areas as a facility wishes, provided the waste management requirements specified above and the one-year time limit are met for accumulated materials. [RO 13783]

Exporting universal waste

If a handler wants to export universal waste, he/she must comply with the export standards for universal waste at §273.20 or 273.40 (for small or large quantity handlers, respectively). These sections reference the applicable hazardous waste export requirements for generators in Part 262, Subpart H. The export standards in Part 262, Subpart H apply to a person designated as an “exporter,” defined as “the person domiciled in the United States who is required to originate the movement document in accordance with §262.83(d)….” [§262.81] However, shipments of universal waste are not required to be shipped under a manifest, whether they are sent to domestic or foreign destination facilities. [April 12, 1996; 61 FR 16306] Even though a manifest is not required for universal waste shipments, including exports, §273.20 or 273.40 requires specific Part 262, Subpart H export regulations to be met for universal waste exports. [RO 14740] For example, a movement document must accompany the transboundary movement of universal waste. [§262.83(d)]

The Part 262, Subpart H standards include contract, notification, movement document, annual reporting, and recordkeeping requirements. To summarize, the exporter (universal waste handler) must send a notification of intent to export to EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance 60 days prior to exporting the universal waste to a foreign facility. The notification must include information such as a description of the waste, estimates of the quantity of waste that will be shipped, and the name of the foreign destination facility. This notification may cover export activities over a 12-month period. [§262.83(b)]

EPA, in conjunction with the State Department, will provide a complete notification to the receiving country and any transit countries. If the receiving country consents to the receipt of the universal waste, EPA will forward an Acknowledgement of Consent to the handler. The handler must file annual reports by March 1 of each year covering such activities. [§262.83(g)] Finally, exporters of universal waste must keep copies of each notification of intent to export, Acknowledgement of Consent, confirmation of receipt from the consignee, confirmation of recovery or disposal, contract, and annual reports for three years. [§262.83(i)]


Topic: Wastewater Treatment Units

©2018 McCoy and Associates, Inc. All rights reserved.


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.