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DOT Empty vs. RCRA Empty: What's the Difference?

Posted on 11/19/2018 by Noah Polsky, Hazmat Instructor

Sometimes, a person or business must comply with rules from two different regulatory agencies at the same time.
This can be very tricky territory; Federal and State requirements are often written in dense, convoluted language that poses a challenge for anyone who’s not fluent in “regulatory speak.” Compliance with one agency’s requirements takes great patience and careful planning—compliance with two sets of regulations takes even more.
One common situation that requires compliance with two sets of regulations is the shipment of “empty” containers that once held a hazardous material or waste. When it comes to regulatory compliance, the word “empty” has very specific meanings. To determine when a shipped container is empty for compliance purposes, we need to look to US DOT’s Hazardous Materials Regulations (HMR) and US EPA’s RCRA hazardous waste requirements.
To better understand how DOT and EPA each weigh in on the topic of “empty” containers, let’s review some possible shipping scenarios.

Shipping Full Hazmat Packages or Containers

Let’s start with the easiest situation: you’re trying to ship packages that are completely full of hazardous materials, and the materials are NOT hazardous waste. A finished product sent to a customer would likely fall into this category.
Which regulations apply?
DOT Hazardous Materials Regulations: Follow all the appropriate hazardous materials shipping rules for a fully regulated shipment.
EPA Hazardous Waste Regulations: There are no hazardous waste management rules to follow, because the material is not a hazardous waste.

Simple enough, right? Now let’s change it up a little.

Shipping Full Hazardous Waste Containers


In our second scenario, you’re shipping packages that are completely full of hazardous waste. This is common enough; facilities everywhere regularly ship containers of hazardous waste to treatment, storage, and disposal facilities (TSDFs). 
Which regulations apply?
DOT Hazardous Materials Regulations:Follow all the appropriate hazmat shipping rules for a fully regulated shipment, because US EPA hazardous wastes are DOT hazardous materials by default.
EPA Hazardous Waste Regulations: Follow all the appropriate hazardous waste rules.
Still not overly complicated, provided you know what you’re doing. As we move on to the next scenario, it starts to get a little tricky.

Shipping Hazmat Residues

Now, let’s say you received a shipment of a raw material that you use as an ingredient in your product. You use what you need, then pour out just about everything that’s left from the packages. But there’s a little bit of residue left over in the packages, which you’re going to ship back to your chemical vendor to be refilled.
Which regulations apply?
DOT Hazardous Materials Regulations: Follow all the appropriate hazmat shipping rules for a fully regulated shipment.
Although it doesn’t seem like it, this is a fully regulated shipment, and almost all of the DOT hazmat shipping rules still apply (except placarding of the transport vehicle). Think about it this way: If the package contained a flammable liquid, isn’t the little bit of liquid left in there still the same flammable liquid? If it was corrosive, isn’t whatever’s left still corrosive?
DOT hazards are not defined by the quantity of the material, but by its properties. Therefore, it’s important to note that even though the average person might look at that container and say, “of course it’s empty, you just poured everything out!” the DOT would say, “the hazard still exists in the package, so it’s a full package.”
EPA Hazardous Waste Regulations: There are no hazardous waste rules to follow, because the material is not a hazardous waste.

Shipping Hazardous Waste Residues


Still with me? Then it’s time for the most complex scenario. In this final one, we’re shipping a residue of a hazardous waste.This is where DOT’s and EPA’s different definitions of “empty” come into play.
Which regulations apply?
DOT Hazardous Materials Regulations: If the material presented a DOT hazard, then the waste residue is also a DOT hazardous material, and all appropriate rules must be followed for a fully regulated hazmat shipment, as in the scenario described above. If, on the other hand, the material was only regulated as a DOT Class 9 because it was a hazardous waste, then the residue will not be regulated by DOT when shipped, as long as it meets the EPA’s definition of “empty,” which we’ll explore below.
EPA Hazardous Waste Regulations: What is "RCRA empty"? EPA has a very different definition of “empty” from DOT. DOT, as we’ve learned, basically says that if there is a hazard present in the package, it is a full package, whether or not it is completely filled. EPA has what is commonly referred to as the “one-inch rule.” The Agency says that in order for a package to be empty of hazardous waste, all wastes must be removed that can be removed by practical methods (i.e., pouring, pumping, scraping), at which point there must be no more than one inch remaining in the container.
Because of the drastically different definitions, this means that it is possible to have a package that EPA considers empty, but DOT does not. If you are shipping this package, you wouldn’t have to follow any EPA hazardous waste rules, because as far as EPA is concerned, it’s empty. But if that waste exhibits any DOT hazards, the residue is still a DOT hazardous material when shipped.
US DOT maintains a definition of hazmat and procedures for empties at 49 CFR 173.29.
US EPA maintains a definition and procedures for empties at 40 CFR 261.7. 

Online Hazmat Training

If you can’t make it out to one of the final DOT Hazmat Shipper workshops of 2018 in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, or Chicago, online training is the next best thing.


Complete your hazmat training at Lion.com for a fully engaged learning experience that drives home critical hazmat topics and always covers the latest regulations. Check out the latest versions of Lion’s popular hazmat online courses:

Hazmat Ground Shipper Certification (DOT)
Recurrent Hazmat Ground Shipper Certification (DOT)

Hazmat Training for New and Experienced Hazmat Employees

New hazmat employees need a solid grasp of the hazmat regulations and what they must do to help maintain compliance. Every step of the hazmat shipping process is regulated in some way, and even small mistakes can lead to fines now approaching $80,000 per day, per violation.

The Shipping Hazmat by Ground—Ops Online Course provides hazmat general awareness, security awareness, and function-specific training for new or experienced hazmat employees. Personnel who complete this course learn how to comply with the regulations that govern their hazmat-related activities.

Tags: 49CFR, DOT, empty, hazmat, is, RCRA, shipping, what

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