October 10, 2017

RCRA Status of Recalled Airbag Inflators

When an accident occurs, an electric spark ignites the solid propellant in a vehicle airbag inflator, resulting in the rapid inflation of the airbag as the solid propellant is converted to a gas. But what if undeployed airbag inflators that have been installed in vehicles are subsequently removed—would they be considered used or unused? In RO 14893, EPA has decided that airbags that have been installed in vehicles and are subsequently removed undeployed are “used” (i.e., spent materials) in the context of the RCRA regulations.

This guidance was prompted by a large recall of installed but undeployed airbag inflators. Guidance from the agency was needed to determine the status of the inflators both during the recall proceedings and after they were released from the proceedings and sent for disposal. EPA determined the following:

  1. While they are being held under the recall order, judicial proceedings, and investigations, the undeployed airbag inflators are not discarded and are, therefore, not subject to RCRA. This is consistent with previous agency guidance in RO 11363.
  2. Once the inflators are released from the recall order and other legal action that requires them to be held as evidence, the recalled airbag inflators are solid waste (this is the point of generation) and subject to a hazardous waste determination (since the airbag inflators cannot be reused). Because the airbag inflators are used, no P/U-listed codes would apply. Further, these inflators are not on the F/K-lists, and so only the characteristics need to be evaluated. Due to the reactive nature of the propellant component and the presence of oxidizers, these undeployed airbag inflators are ignitable (D001) and reactive (D003) characteristic hazardous waste when discarded.

EPA was careful to separate the new guidance in RO 14893 from previous agency guidance noting that unused inflators were considered off-spec products. In that older guidance, EPA was evaluating uninstalled inflators that failed QC testing at the manufacturer’s facility; those off-spec uninstalled inflators are off-spec products and, therefore, not solid waste when reclaimed. [RO 11666] In the present case, the inflators had been installed and are considered used (i.e., spent materials) when removed from vehicles.

 


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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.