The federal universal waste requirements are defined in 40 CFR 273 and are meant to provide a legal and safe means for companies to recycle or otherwise safely dispose of certain wastes that would otherwise end up in landfills. Over the years, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has added different waste categories to the requirements, with the last product category, mercury-containing equipment, added more than 8 years ago in August 2005.
Despite being somewhat lenient, the universal waste rule still requires that companies comply with all applicable aspects of the regulation or risk noncompliance and enforcement actions. Although a review of EPA’s universal waste enforcement activities from 2008 until 2012 revealed only a handful of violations, two violations were very common while others were onetime violations, at least within EPA’s published accounts. Either way, they earned the violating companies penalties and should be considered in planning and implementing universal waste activities.
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Of the most-often-cited violations, one stands out as most prevalent: Failure to properly label and identify storage containers. This requirement is provided in two different sections, 273.14 for small quantity generators (SQGs) and 273.34 for large quantity generators (LQGs), and must define what type of universal waste is within the container using the exact wording provided in the regulation itself. For example, for SQGs with mercury-containing equipment, the regulation requires one of the following:
1) Universal Waste—Mercury-Containing Equipment,
2) Waste Mercury-Containing Equipment, or
3) Used Mercury-Containing Equipment,
In addition, each thermostat or container that holds only mercury-containing thermostats must be labeled with one of the following:
1) Universal Waste—Mercury Thermostats,
2) Waste Mercury Thermostats, or
3) Used Mercury Thermostats.
Similarly, each mercury-containing lamp or container holding only lamps must be labeled:
1) Universal Waste—Lamps,
2) Waste Lamps, or
3) Used Lamps.
Each category of universal waste (batteries, pesticides, etc.) has its own label/marking requirements and wording spelled out in the regulation for both SQGs and LQGs.
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The second most-often-cited violation for universal wastes is the failure to close the universal waste container when not in use and/or failure to store waste in a closed container. Again, each category of universal waste has requirements that are specific to that waste and allow for safe management that prevents releases to the environment. In the case of mercury-containing equipment, container requirements for SQGs are provided in 273.13 and LQGs container responsibilities are in 273.33 and define what equipment must be in a container, as well as a fairly inclusive description of container properties and capabilities.
“The container must be closed, be structurally sound, compatible with the contents of the device, must lack evidence of leakage, spillage, or damage that could cause leakage, spillage, or damage that could cause leakage under reasonably foreseeable conditions, and must be reasonably designed to prevent the escape of mercury into the environment by volatilization or any other means.”
One or both of these two violations appeared in all but two of the seven violations surveyed; however, those two didn’t have to worry about labeling or containers because they disposed of their universal wastes illegally in the first place. One violation was for disposing of mercury-containing fluorescent light- bulbs as regular trash (meaning it likely went to a landfill), while the other disposed of similar fluorescent lamps on-site by way of their arc furnace, but did not have a permit to legally do so. The penalties for these two activities alone: $23,000 and $150,000, respectively.