4 Common Universal Waste Mistakes (And How to Avoid Them)

Posted on July 10,2017 by James Griffin, Ross Kellogg, and Roger Marks

Did you know that 1 out of 10 RCRA hazardous waste violations is related to the mismanagement of universal waste?

40 CFR 273 creates alternative management standards for certain specified hazardous wastes that are inherently low-hazard and generated in small amounts by nearly everyone. Federal universal wastes include pesticides, batteries, mercury-articles, and “lamps.”

Assorted_Small_Containers_Universal_Waste.jpgMany states include additional wastes as universal ones, such as aerosol cans, antifreeze, photo-finishing solutions, paints, CRTs, and e-waste. The streamlined requirements for universal waste can save facilities time and money—as long as the generator complies with the unique rules at 40 CFR 273. When sites fail to comply with the universal waste rules, RCRA fines can be as high as $71,264 per day, per violation.

So, how can generators avoid the most common violations assessed for improper universal waste management? Awareness is the first step; knowing the most common mistakes will help you identify and correct red flags in the way your site manages universal waste.

Why Do Universal Waste Regulations Exist?

The universal waste regulations at 40 CFR 273 are less burdensome alternatives to the RCRA requirements of 40 CFR 260–270 that apply to regular hazardous waste. Part of US EPA’s reason for creating universal waste rules was that small and conditionally exempt (now called “very small”) generators create a high volume of universal waste.

Without the less burdensome alternative management standards, small businesses and facilities that generate only relatively low-hazard wastes like batteries and lamps may face an undue burden.


Common Universal Waste Mistake #1: Unmarked or improperly marked universal waste containment units

Typically, universal waste containers must be marked with the words that clearly indicate the type of waste in the container, for example, “Universal waste – Batteries.” This requirement is stated at 40 CFR 273.13 and 273.34; these sections also list some different naming conventions for batteries, lamps, mercury-containing equipment, and pesticides.

Common mistakes here include not labeling containers at all or marking the container with “Universal Waste” but not including the type of waste. In addition, generators may not use unapproved abbreviations, such as “bat” for “batteries.” The most commonly misnamed type of universal waste is fluorescent “lamps.” These must not be called “bulbs” or “fluorescent tubes.” Only “Universal wastelamps” is acceptable.

Common Universal Waste Mistake #2: Lack of accumulation start dates or inventory records for universal waste

All hazardous waste containers—including containers of universal waste—should be marked with an accumulation start date, meaning the date on which the first “piece” or “drop” of waste touched the container.

If you do not mark the accumulation start date on a container of universal waste, you must have in place an alternate inventory tracking system to show you are in compliance with the universal waste accumulation time limit, which is 1 year.

Common Universal Waste Mistake #3: Improper universal waste storage

Fluorescent_Lamps_Universal_Waste_Closing_Box_2.jpgUniversal waste must be stored “in a manner that will prevent releases.” When storing fluorescent lamps, for instance, an open container is a common violation. Boxes containing universal waste lamps should be shut and secured with tape or velcro to prevent the lamps from jostling around, breaking, or spilling out of the box.

Common Universal Waste Mistake #4: Failure to identify State universal wastes

As stated above, the Federal rules identify lamps, batteries, pesticides, and mercury-containing equipment as eligible for management as universal waste, and states that are authorized to oversee their own hazardous waste program may add to the list of universal wastes. Texas, for example, allows generators to manage paint and paint-related wastes as universal wastes. In California, electronic devices like TVs, CPUs, DVD players, cell phones, and cathode ray tubes can be managed as universal waste.

Generators need to ensure that they treat these universal wastes according to State regulations. Generators don’t HAVE to follow universal waste regulations. But while so-called “over management” of these wastes may not be a violation of Federal or State rules, doing so may result in unnecessary payments for hazardous waste compliance, treatment, and disposal costs.

Read more about unique State universal waste rules here.

Updated to Cover New RCRA Rules! RCRA Training Online

Meet US EPA’s annual training mandate for hazardous waste personnel at 40 CFR 262.17 and get up to speed on major changes to RCRA that will impact the way your site manages waste.

The RCRA Hazardous Waste Management Online Course is now updated to cover landmark revisions to the hazardous waste generator requirements—a wholly re-organized Part 262, expanded contingency planning requirements, new reliefs, revised hazardous waste marking and labeling rules, and much more. Get your annual RCRA training anytime, anywhere—from work, from home, at night, even on weekends!

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