Under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is tasked with regulating hazardous wastes from their point of generation through their ultimate disposal, or from “cradle to grave.”
According to 40 CFR 261.3, a solid waste becomes a hazardous waste when it
- Exhibits one or more of the characteristics of hazardous waste identified by the EPA in 40 CFR 261.21-.24, and/or
- Meets any of the listed descriptions of hazardous waste found in 40 CFR 261.31-.33.
Waste identification is supposed to be done at the point of generation of the waste, and in fact there are special management standards that apply to accumulating waste “at or near” these points of generation (the “satellite area exemption” found at 40 CFR 262.15).
The question is … what exactly IS the point of generation for a waste?
The phrase “point of generation” is used in the RCRA hazardous waste regulations, but it is not clearly defined.. EPA has been reticent to codify any specific definition, in part because they realize that the decision is going to be based on a number of factors. So let’s explore those factors a little.
RCRA Definition of Solid Waste
In order for something to be a hazardous waste, it must first be a solid waste. 40 CFR 261.2 defines a “solid waste” to include any solid, semi-solid, liquid, or contained gaseous material that is intended to be discarded.
So regardless of physical state, the moment you decide a material is destined to be discarded, it is a solid waste. That moment is the “point of generation,” at which you must also determine if the solid waste is a hazardous waste.
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Point of Generation for RCRA Process Wastes
Materials that are still in a manufacturing process are not a solid waste, and therefore not hazardous waste. But at some point, those materials (solvents, etc.) are going to become too contaminated to continue being used in the process. They’ll need to be drained out and probably sent for disposal.
The moment those materials are removed from the process with the intent to dispose of them, they become a solid waste and the generator must determine if they are a hazardous waste. So the point of generation for most process wastes is quite literally the moment it is removed from the process
If a process generates multiple
waste streams, they may all share a point of generation (if they are drained out of the process in the same close vicinity) or may have different points of generation (if, say, one of the waste streams is generated at the start of the process and another near the end of the same process).
But what if we never drain the materials from the process? What if we just shut it down and leave the stuff in there? If we never remove the materials from the process, then it never becomes solid waste, right? Well – not quite. The exclusion for solid wastes in a manufacturing process unit at 40 CFR 261.4(c) states that if a process is shut down for 90 days or less, the materials inside are not considered to be solid or hazardous waste.
However, if the process remains shut down on day 91, the generator must consider the materials to be solid waste because they have been “abandoned in place,” essentially, and perform proper hazardous waste identification at that point. In a case like this, on day 91 the process itself would be the point of generation for all of the hazardous waste still in the process.
Unused Commercial Chemical Products
For commercial chemical products sitting on a warehouse shelf, the point of generation is perhaps a bit more clear-cut: the moment a generator decides an unused chemical is destined to be disposed of, they must perform waste identification.
The moment someone looks at a container and thinks “we haven’t ever used this, we don’t intend to use it, we should just throw it out” is the point of generation for that unused chemical.
There’s a common misconception that unused chemicals become hazardous waste on the expiration date set by the original manufacturer, but the hazardous waste regulations never specify this.
The rules allow generators to consider unused chemicals as product provided they are managing the chemicals as though they intend to use them or are trying to find a use for them.
And there are plenty of chemicals for which the expiration date is simply the date beyond with the manufacturer will not guarantee full effectiveness; many chemicals can still be used past their expiration date. However, if the company’s policy is that all unused chemicals must be declared waste and are destined for disposal on the expiration date, then that company policy holds sway.
Read more: 3 Waste Minimization Strategies for Commercial Chemical Products
The Bottom Line
The bottom line is that until the EPA issues a formal definition of “point of generation,” there will always be confusion and controversy over exactly where that point is, and how many points of generation you actually have, at your facility.
A Best Management Practice might be to establish company procedures for tasks like determining point of generation for each process that generates hazardous waste streams and determining when unused chemicals become hazardous waste.