Enforcement and Inspection, Hazardous Waste Management

EPA Plans to Expand the Universal Waste Rule

The EPA recently announced it’s planning to propose new rules to improve the management and recycling of end-of-life solar panels and lithium batteries. Plans for the proposed regulations include modifying the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) Universal Waste Rule to add hazardous waste solar panels and to establish a new, distinct category of universal waste specifically tailored to lithium batteries.

“EPA supports the increased use of solar power and electric vehicles as integral emissions-free sources of energy and transportation in the fight against climate change,” states the EPA website. “Like all energy production technologies, when solar panels and electric vehicle and other lithium batteries reach the end of their useful lives, their associated wastes must be responsibly recycled and managed.  Recycling returns valuable critical minerals to the economy, both conserving resources and reducing the overall energy use needed to produce new solar panels and lithium batteries.”

Solar panels

The addition of photovoltaic solar panels to the universal waste management program comes in response to a November 21, 2021, petition submitted by a coalition of industry associations affiliated with the electric power industry, the EPA stated.

“Over the next several decades, millions of tons of PV Panels are expected to be taken out of service and potentially contribute millions of metric tons of waste in the [U.S.] as both the adoption rate and the subsequent retirement rate for PV Panels continues to increase,” the petition states. “Without more recycling options, many of these PV Panels are expected to be disposed of without the reclamation of valuable materials, including metals, contained within. The cumulative technical potential of recoverable materials in end-of-life modules by 2050 has an estimated value of $15 billion, and these materials could be used to produce two billion new solar modules.”

The coalition of industry associations that submitted the petition includes:

  • The Edison Electric Institute
  • The American Clean Power Association
  • The U.S. Chamber of Commerce
  • The National Association of Manufacturers
  • The American Public Power Association
  • The Large Public Power Council
  • The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association
  • The Utility Solid Waste Activities Group
  • The Cross-Cutting Issues Group

Lithium batteries

“Though lithium batteries are generally safe when used, stored, and charged appropriately, these batteries can cause fires when improperly discarded or otherwise mismanaged at the end of their lives,” states the Agency website.  “Establishing a category of universal waste specifically for lithium batteries will improve safety standards and reduce fires from mismanaged end-of-life lithium batteries, while continuing to promote battery recycling.”

The proposed addition of a category for lithium batteries to the RCRA Universal Wate Rule is in response to a 2021 EPA report on fires caused by lithium batteries.

The report found 64 waste facilities that experienced 245 fires caused by, or likely caused by, lithium metal or lithium-ion batteries (LIBs). Of the 245 lithium battery fires studied, the EPA found that materials recovery facilities (MRFs) face the brunt of negative impacts:

  • 78% of MRFs have had to call emergency responders at least once as opposed to 40% of landfills.
  • Five MRFs (or 22%) in the dataset have experienced injury impacts from LIB fires compared with only two other facilities (a transport truck and a battery recycler).
  • Close to half (43%) of the MRFs that experienced fires have faced monetary impacts.
  • Among the cases compiled, MRFs also had the highest incidence of service disruption (39%).

“Such impacts are not surprising when the waste management process is examined,” states the report. “The highly mechanized waste management process often includes machines that crush and consolidate waste and is inhospitable to LIBs, which can be damaged easily. When damaged, LIBs can start fires by igniting the surrounding trash and recyclables.”

Analysts predict new labeling requirements stating that the waste storage units contain universal waste lithium batteries rather than just “universal waste batteries.”

“It is important to note that EPA’s effort to revise the universal waste rule for lithium-ion batteries may face a significant legal obstacle,” speculates an article by Beveridge & Diamond P.C. “Under the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Act of 1996 (Battery Act), ‘[t]he collection, storage, or transportation of used rechargeable batteries … shall, notwithstanding any law of a State or political subdivision thereof … be regulated under applicable provisions of the regulations promulgated by the [EPA].’ … That provision arguably locks in the rules for rechargeable batteries such as [LIBs] – and for consumer products containing such batteries, if they are ‘not easily removable’ – as the rules existed in the original 1995 universal waste rule (absent further action by Congress).”

In planning for the proposed rule, the EPA says it’s “working on standards in line with current industry best practices to harmonize battery management across the industry.”

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