Holiday Hazmat Return Season is Here

Posted on 12/14/2020 by Flip De Rea and Roger Marks

Whether it’s a sweater from Grandma or the wrong edition of the PlayStation—some holiday gifts make us think about returning them before we can even say, “Wow, thanks!”

With an unprecedented holiday shipping season now upon us, a global public health crisis still lingering, and the ORM-D designation going away on 12/31/20, keeping the flow of returned items moving will be a bigger challenge than usual for retailers this year. 

For your customers, returning a gift should be pretty simple. That said, without some guidance on what's required to ship your product—you know, the one that contains a regulated hazardous material like a flammable liquid or a lithium battery–your customers may be in for a protracted, frustrating return process that ruins their experience and makes them think twice about ordering from you again. 

Whether they realize it or not, our customers become shippers when they offer a hazardous material for transportation, and their return shipments are subject to the Hazardous Materials Regulations (HMR).

Providing customers with compliant return packaging and detailed hazardous materials packing and shipping instructions can help ensure their returns make it back to you safely and intact. 

Let’s assume that your customer has successfully returned a product to you. Now what?

As retailers and shippers, returning products that contains hazardous materials to recoup the cost from a distributor or supplier is not quite as easy as it is for consumers.

Using DOT’s Reverse Logistics Reliefs

In a perfect world, a retailer could re-stock and re-sell every returned product.

But when a product is damaged, defective, expired, or otherwise non-saleable, the seller faces a challenge: Returning it to the manufacturer or distributor for a refund. When the product contains a hazardous material, this challenge is even more pronounced.   

“Reverse logistics” is more than just a fun and fancy way of saying returns. Back in 2016, US DOT adopted the term reverse logistics to use in direct reference to regulatory relief offered for the transport of hazardous materials from a retailer back to a supplier “for the purpose of capturing value.”  

In general, the reverse logistics relief is limited to hazardous materials that meet two criteria:
  • Authorized for Limited Quantity packaging in column (8A) of the 172.101 table, and
  • Whose Exception packing instruction explicitly offers Reverse Logistics as an option.
Read more: Hazmat Reverse Logistics Rule for Retail Stores Finalized (2016)

If your products are eligible for these reverse logistics reliefs, you can and should take advantage of them. But there's a big catch here: One of the most common types of hazmat are not eligible for reverse logistics reliefs–lithium batteries. 

Reverse Logistics: Batteries Not Included

Lithium batteries and battery-powered gadgets are unfortunately not covered under DOT’s “reverse logistics” exceptions. So where does that leave that unwanted drone, the singing fish, or the dancing Santa with the rechargeable batteries?

If you want to ship lithium batteries, even if the destination is back to where they came from, you are subject to the same hazmat rules and regulations that were (hopefully) followed to safely deliver them to you in the first place.

The exact standards you follow to prepare and ship lithium batteries [49 CFR 173.185] will vary based on the details of your shipment. To help you determine the exact requirements that apply to your shipment, start with these five questions:
  • Are you shipping lithium cells or batteries?
  • Are your batteries lithium-ion or lithium-metal?
  • What size is the battery, in Watt hours or grams of lithium?
  • Is the battery being packaged separately from, with, or in the equipment it powers?
  • Will the mode of transport used be by ground, by air, or by vessel?
Once you have those answers, you will be on your way to offering compliant lithium battery packages.

The Shipping Lithium Batteries online course covers what you need to know to prepare and offer lithium ion or lithium metal batteries for transportation by ground, air, and vessel. US DOT requires training once every three years for all “hazmat employees” at 49 CFR 172.704.

Returning Damaged, Defective, Recalled Lithium Batteries

Damaged, defective, or recalled lithium cells or batteries (e.g., those being returned to the manufacturer for safety reasons) may be transported by highway, rail, or vessel only (i.e., not by air).

Specific, enhanced packaging requirements apply to these lithium battery shipments, including things like:
  • Each battery must be placed in individual, non-metallic inner packaging that completely encloses it.
  • The inner packaging must be surrounded by non-combustible, electrically non-conductive, and absorbent cushioning material.
  • Each inner packaging must be individually placed in a metal, wooden, or plastic drum or box at the Packing Group I level.
  • The outer package must be marked “Damaged/defective lithium ion battery” or “Damaged/defective lithium metal battery” as appropriate.
Disposal of the lithium battery is always an option too, but there goes your refund.

Shipping Lithium Batteries for Disposal

Lithium batteries (including those contained in equipment) that will be shipped to a permitted disposal site or for purposes of recycling must be transported by motor vehicle (only). In this situation they are excepted from specific testing and record keeping requirements required of all other lithium batteries. They are also excepted from the UN performance packaging requirements “when packed in a strong outer packaging”.

Lithium batteries being sent for disposal that meet the conditions for “exception shipping” are furthermore excepted from the requirements for documentation, labeling, placarding, and emergency response information. The package may still require, in some cases, the lithium battery mark.

To ensure smooth returns this holiday season:  

Smart hazmat compliance will help you receive returns from your customers safely and quickly, and capture maximum value for the products you must return to vendors.

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