In 1976, the federal government passed the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). The act has been amended several times, giving the EPA definitions and guidelines that provide them the ability to take action against facilities and businesses that fail to meet regulations for the health and safety of people and the environment. An important subsection of the RCRA regulations addresses the handling of waste, and more specifically, regulated waste.
According to EPA records, over the last two years hundreds of companies and facilities have been fined for failing to comply with the EPA’s rules on the handling of universal waste. Fines typically range from $3,000 to $9,000, but some have been recorded as high as tens of thousands for substantial violators. A check of the inspection records for several states and regions indicates that cited violators were not limited to large universal waste producers or any specific industry. From small, public schools to major corporations, any facility that utilizes fluorescent lighting can find themselves in trouble if their universal waste is not properly managed.
According to the Cornell Law School, the EPA has the authority to inspect and levy fines for failure to properly handle hazardous waste under Code of Federal Regulations (40 CFR Part 273, Subpart A – General). Fluorescent lamps, batteries, pesticides and mercury-containing equipment are specifically defined as “Universal Waste” by the EPA, and are subject to heightened scrutiny because of the potential danger to the environment when not properly disposed of or recycled.
For example according to the EPA’s Enforcement and Compliance History Online (ECHO) website, two universities in the Upstate region of South Carolina were recently fined in excess of $12,000 combined for RCRA violations. A retail chain store in Kentucky was fined $3,750 by their state DEP when the federal EPA recorded the violation. Additionally, the management team at that Kentucky store was required to attend an Enforcement Conference with the EPA. But perhaps the most notable financial penalty for improper disposal of hazardous and universal waste in the last year is the $27.84 Million Home Depot agreed to pay to California.
Fortunately, fines and citations are easily preventable, if you work with a registered, reputable hazardous waste handler. A certified universal waste recycler can provide facility management with a clear record of their waste’s proper handling and will provide a Certificate of Recycling Compliance for future reference. Having an understanding of your recycler’s downstream procedures can be the difference between an uneventful inspection and a disciplinary action.
The most recent federal budget slashes the EPA funding by 23%, causing a large reduction in staff. This might mean more pressure on inspectors to find actionable violations. With less direct budgetary funding, it could also mean the EPA will be looking to increase the financial impact of fines and violations to help defray the cost of other important programs. It becomes all the more important for a business or facility to have the necessary documentation of compliance.
Depending on the amount of universal waste a facility is producing, there are good options for EPA-compliance. A smaller facility that isn’t producing much hazardous waste, say 100 kilograms (220 lbs.) or less a month, is considered a very small quantity generator (VSQG). Setting up a box and store program for their fluorescent lamps, like an EasyPakTM box, will most likely be enough to remain compliant.
A mid-sized or larger facility could fall into either the small quantity generator (SQG) or large quantity generator (LQG) category. Depending on a number of factors, such as the number of waste lamps generated each month and available storage space, a facility might consider a drum-top bulb crusher like the BulbEater3L® for their compliance needs (check local regulations for approval). For very large quantities of waste lamps, a facility can set up a bulk pick-up to clear their property of potentially hazardous lamps.
The key is to get ahead of the violations before the EPA comes to inspect a facility. No manager wants to have to spend money on a fine, plus find themselves under greater scrutiny when a situation is easily preventable. The solutions cost a fraction of the fines the EPA can levy and prevent the embarrassment of citation.