Universal Waste Rules: Not So Universal

Posted on 3/22/2016 by Ross Kellogg

As is the case with most environmental requirements, the EPA encourages each US state to develop and run its own hazardous waste management program. Each authorized state may create unique hazardous waste regulations that are more stringent than the US EPA’s Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) requirements, but may not have rules that are less stringent than RCRA’s. For a prime example of how Federal and State hazardous waste rules may differ, we can turn to California and the unique rules for managing universal waste that its Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) has created.

RCRA Authorization for State Universal Waste Rules

In 1995, US EPA passed the Universal Waste Rule, which created relaxed standards for managing common hazardous wastes like light bulbs (lamps), batteries, mercury-containing equipment, and more. Because these relaxed standards were less stringent than the existing RCRA rules at that time, states had two options: adopt the updated universal waste criteria or keep in place the more stringent rules that already existed. Because states can choose whether or not to adopt new, less stringent RCRA rules, universal waste is one area of hazardous waste regulations where differences at the State level are common.

California’s Changing Universal Waste Rules

California did adopt the US EPA’s relaxed universal waste rules into its own State hazardous waste regulations, but not without adding some unique touches. The one unique element of California’s universal waste rules we want to address here is DTSC’s changing stance on how universal waste affects hazardous waste generator status.

Under the Federal RCRA rules, universal waste is excluded from the section of the rules that affects how you count waste toward generator status. This universal waste exclusion is a critical detail for sites where going over certain thresholds of waste generation per month can mean more requirements to meet, reports to file, additional hazardous waste training for personnel, and more. Prior to a letter issued by the DTSC on November 8, 2011, it was assumed that the DTSC excluded universal waste from counting toward generator status. In this (now rescinded) letter, the DTSC clarified that universal waste was in fact part of the definition of hazardous waste [22 CCR 66260.10]:

“Hazardous waste” means a hazardous waste as defined in Section 66261.3 of this division. “Hazardous waste” includes acutely hazardous waste, extremely hazardous waste, non-RCRA hazardous waste, RCRA hazardous waste, special waste, and universal waste.” (Emphasis added.)

DTSC further clarified that while universal waste was excluded from typical hazardous waste management standards under California regulations, that did not mean that UW did not count toward generator status. The DTSC stated that this was due to two factors.
  1. California specifically did not adopt the Federal regulation that describes counting found in 40 CFR 261.5.
  2. California does not include counting as one of the management activities as described in the definition of management found in 22 CCR 66260.10.
According to 22 CCR 66260.10, California’s definition of “management” or “hazardous waste management” means the handling, storage, transportation, processing, treatment, recovery, recycling, transfer, and disposal of hazardous waste.

CUPA Universal Waste Enforcement in California

While many Certified Unified Program Agencies (CUPAs) may not have been aware initially of the subtle difference between California and US EPA rules, the DTSC continued to disseminate the information to the CUPAs individually and during the annual CUPA conference, where CUPAs attend hazardous waste training seminars on how to properly enforce Federal and State waste regulations.

Uncertainty about how DTSC and CUPAs would enforce the universal waste rules was a concern for generators. The DTSC sent out information confirming that UW was hazardous waste for the purposes of generator status. However, since it was not required to be manifested, it would not be taxed as such by the state, because waste disposal fees are calculated based on tonnage of hazardous waste shipped on a manifest

DTSC Reverses Course on Universal Waste

Recognizing that counting universal waste toward generator status has a significant impact on many California generators, the State legislature decided to update the law to clarify which wastes need to be counted and to exclude universal waste from that list.

On October 2, 2015, Governor Brown signed into law SB 612, which, among other additions and changes, added Section 25158.1 to the Health and Safety Code to remove universal wastes from counting for the purpose of determining hazardous waste generator status. DTSC is required to adopt regulations by December 1, 2016, which will provide instructions to hazardous waste generators on how to implement this counting requirement.

With that, universal waste no longer counts toward a California hazardous waste site’s generator status. At some time in the next year, expect further details on how the DTSC plans to fully implement this law into the regulations.

Maintain Your REHS Credential: New Options!

Lion Technology is now a Registered Provider of REHS continuing education training! To help Registered Environmental Health Specialists (REHSs) in California maintain their credential, all of Lion’s public workshops—including the Hazardous Waste in California Workshop—now count toward your 24 contact hours required every two years by the California Department of Public Health. For a full list of REHS eligible workshops, 24/7 online courses, and live webinars, visit

Tags: DTSC, hazardous waste, RCRA, universal waste

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