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What Is Universal Waste?

July 19, 2023

This blog entry discusses the RCRA category of universal waste compared to types of hazardous waste. Q&As include:

1. What is universal waste?

2. How does universal waste differ from hazardous waste?

3. How do you dispose of small or household amounts of universal waste?

4. How do you dispose of large amounts of universal waste?

5. What are the rules for storing large amounts of universal waste?

6. How long can a transporter store large amounts of universal waste?

7. What are the rules for transporting large amounts of universal waste?

8. What are the labeling requirements for large amounts of universal waste?

9. What are the packaging rules for large amounts of universal waste?

10. Where can you get help with universal waste management for large amounts of universal waste?

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1. What is universal waste?

This is one of the most common questions we’re asked. The prosaic answer is anything that’s listed in Title 40 of the Code of Federal Regulations. Therein, in Part 273, the five types of universal waste are listed. They are:

  • Universal Waste batteries (because they contain lithiumsilver ion, nickel, cadmiummercury-oxide, or sealed lead-acid) [CFR § 273.2]
  • Universal Waste Pesticides (because of the toxicity of their constituent chemicals) [CFR § 273.3]
  • Universal Waste Mercury-containing equipment (E.g., thermometers, thermostats, and various equipment) [CFR § 273.4]
  • Universal Waste Lamps (such as fluorescent, high-intensity discharge, neon, mercury vapor, high-pressure sodium, and metal halide) [CFR § 273.5]
  • Universal Waste Aerosol cans (because they contain VOCs that contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone) [CFR § 273.6]

­2. How does universal waste differ from hazardous waste?

Good question. After all, if the constituents of universal waste are themselves either listed or characteristic RCRA wastes, then shouldn’t the “universal wastes” themselves be intrinsically hazardous? Logic might point in that direction. However…

These wastes are so ubiquitous in the environment, and they’re generated by so many entities, big and small (from single-parent household hazardous waste to ginormous industrial plants), that imposing the full breadth of hazmat regulations upon them would be so onerous as to invite non-compliance.

Thus, the EPA created the Universal Waste subcategory for certain kinds of EPA hazardous waste that are commonly generated by households, businesses, and industry—along with regulations to streamline the hazardous waste management rules surrounding them.

The agency says it did so too:

  • Promote the collection and recycling of universal waste.
  • Encourage the development of municipal and commercial universal waste programs to reduce the waste that’s landfilled or incinerated.
  • Ease the regulatory burden on retail stores and other generators needing to collect and transport such waste to a treatment facility.  

­3. How do you dispose of small or household amounts of universal waste?

Okay—not to belabor the point—but remember that a universal waste is nonetheless a hazardous waste. So, it cannot be disposed of in the trash to consequently show up in landfills. 

Generally, communities require you to take household hazardous wastes to specified collection points, which will send the waste to a destination facility for proper treatment or disposal; or they might have one-day collection events in spring, summer, or fall. In some instances, you might be required to return certain items to retailers.

Some permanent collection sites have product exchange programs where still-usable household products are made available and free to the public. (E.g., paint, thinners, solvents, pesticides, etc.)

4. How do you dispose of large amounts of universal waste?

Universal waste must go to a “destination facility,” which is an entity designated to treat and dispose of universal waste—and manage it in accordance with the requirements and conditions of their hazardous waste facility permit.

Two examples of destination facilities are hazardous waste landfills and hazardous waste recycling facilities. 

But you just can’t throw your universal waste into the back of your Silverado and take it to a destination facility. Instead, you need to employ the services of another kind of universal waste handler: one that specializes in collecting, storing, receiving, and shipping universal wastes (see Q.6 and Q.7).

5. What are the rules for storing large amounts of universal waste?

It depends upon whether the EPA considers you a Small Quantity Handler of Universal Waste (SQHUW) vs. a Large Quantity Handler of Universal Waste (LQHUW).

An SQHUW can accumulate up to (but fewer than) 11,000 pounds of universal waste onsite without a storage permit for up to a year. If you’re an LQHUW, you can accumulate as much universal waste as you want without a storage permit for up to a year. 

In either case, if you need more than one year, you must be able to prove that the waste has a feasible recycling market.

6. How long can a transporter store large amounts of universal waste?

A transporter of universal waste may store it at a transfer facility for up to ten days before delivering it to an LQHUW, an SQHUW, or a destination facility.

A “destination facility” is where hazardous wastes—and thereby universal wastes—are stored prior to recycling, incineration, or whatever. To do so, they must have a waste installation & operation permit for storage.

And suppose the destination facility is additionally used to dispose of universal waste. In that case, it must be permitted for hazardous waste disposal: reminding us once again that universal waste is a kind of hazardous waste and must be treated as such.

7. What are the rules for transporting large amounts of universal waste?

The DOT rules for universal waste transporters are logically more lenient than the rules for hazardous waste transporters. And unlike small or large hazardous-waste generators, hazardous waste manifests aren’t required for universal waste handlers (although large handlers are required to keep basic shipping records). More specifically:

  • Either an SQHUW or an LQHUW may transport universal waste to another universal waste handler, a destination facility, or a foreign location.
  • A transporter of universal waste must comply with all applicable U.S. D.O.T. regulations applicable to hazardous material disposal (once again, evoking the fact that universal waste is a kind of hazardous waste).
  • Either an SQHUW or an LQHUW may qualify as a transporter in order to self-transport a universal waste. In such cases, the handler must also comply with all applicable U.S. D.O.T. regulations.
  • A destination facility may transport its universal waste to another destination facility, another universal waste handler, or a foreign destination.

­8. What are the universal waste labeling requirements for large amounts of universal waste?

Labeling requirements are the same for both LQHUWs and SQHUWs. Each container must have universal waste labels with the dates of (1) when the contents became a waste and (2) when it was received from another handler. 

Of course, a container of universal waste should never be labeled (and thereby misidentified) as “hazardous waste,” even though that’s what it is, as it’s not to be subject to the more-stringent rules of general hazardous waste disposal. 

 Some other considerations:

  • Containers of spent batteries must be labeled “Universal Waste—Batteries.”
  • Containers of defunct mercury products must be marked “Universal Waste” followed by what it is. For example: “Universal Waste—Mercury Thermostats” or “Universal Waste—Mercury Thermometers.”
  • Pesticides must be labeled “Universal Waste—Pesticide,” and tanks or containers holding recalled pesticides must be marked with the original FIFRA label as if they were still sellable.

­9. What are the packaging rules for large amounts of universal waste?

Unwanted pesticides, batteries, and mercury-containing products must be stored in containers that show no evidence of leakage or spillage—or damage that could cause leakage. More specifically:

  • Pesticide universal waste can be stored in non-original containers, provided that such containers remain closed. 
  • Battery universal waste must be stored in closed containers compatible with the battery’s constituent chemical waste. 
  • Unwanted mercury-containing products of universal waste (e.g., thermostats and barometers) should be placed in closed, sturdy containers and marked “Universal Waste—MCE” (where MCE stands for “mercury-containing equipment”).
  • Aerosol cans universal waste that is damaged or leaking may be handled as universal waste so long as they’re packaged in a separate closed container, overpacked with absorbents, or immediately punctured & drained in accordance with EPA drainage requirements.

­10. Where can you get help with universal waste management for large amounts of universal waste?

Hazardous Waste Experts offers you decades of nationwide experience helping industries and organizations dispose of all kinds of universal waste—safely and conveniently through our hazardous waste facility. Depend on us for custom, sustainable solutions built on best practices for universal-waste handling, both onsite and offsite. 

Contact us today. And thank you for reading our blog!

Disposal of hazardous waste doesn’t have to be painful.