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Hazardous Waste

Frequent Questions About Universal Waste

On this page:

General Universal Waste Questions

Waste Specific Questions

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Who is affected by the universal waste regulations?

Some generators that commonly use or manage hazardous wastes that are affected by universal waste regulations include:

  • Commercial and industrial businesses and other entities such as hospitals,
  • schools and universities,
  • state and local governments, as well as
  • other generators of hazardous wastes considered to be universal waste.

Households that generate universal wastes are exempt from the hazardous waste standards under the household hazardous waste exclusion and therefore, are not affected by the universal waste regulations. Facilities with very small quantity generator status are also not affected by the universal waste regulations. However, EPA encourages management of these materials as universal wastes even for these types of generators, when possible.

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What if I generate a very small amount of universal waste?

If you generate a very small amount of universal waste and are not otherwise designated as a small or large quantity generator of hazardous waste under your state’s regulations, you may qualify for the streamlined standards for Very Small Quantity Generators (VSQGs).

Check with your state agency for information on whether your state recognizes VSQGs and what the limits are for that category of generator.

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What are the general requirements for small and large quantity handlers of universal waste?

Regulatory requirements differ for small and large quantity handlers of universal waste, but in both cases, handlers of universal waste follow streamlined requirements for

  • notifying EPA about their waste activities,
  • labeling containers,
  • storing materials on site,
  • training personnel and
  • tracking and transporting waste.

No permit is needed and no special tracking or reporting is required when businesses send universal waste to recyclers that do not store the waste before recycling; these facilities comply with Title 40 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) section 261.6(c)(2). Otherwise, the universal waste must be sent to a Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA)-permitted facility.

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Why are the universal waste regulations different in some states?

EPA encourages states to develop and run their own hazardous waste programs as an alternative to direct EPA management. However, state adoption of the 1995 universal waste rule is optional.

States can create different standards (except for batteries due to the Battery Act), but they have to be equivalent to the federal regulations (i.e., they must provide equivalent protection, cannot regulate fewer handlers, etc.). States may adopt the entire rule or certain provisions, which are:

  • General provisions
  • Provisions for batteries, pesticides, mercury-containing equipment, and lamps (states do not have to include all of them)
  • Provisions allowing the addition of new universal wastes in states.

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What materials are universal wastes in my state?

The universal waste regulations can vary between states and states can add different types of wastes. EPA compiled a list of which universal wastes which universal wastes states have adopted and which materials some states have added to their universal waste program. You should check with your state to be sure which materials are currently universal wastes in your state.

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Can states expand their universal waste programs to include nonhazardous wastes?

Authorized states may expand their state universal waste programs to include additional wastes beyond the federally recognized universal wastes (i.e., batteries, pesticides, mercury-containing equipment, lamps, and aerosol cans).  EPA established criteria that a waste stream should meet to be included as a universal waste (Section 273.81).  States should evaluate potential additional wastes against these criteria.  However, a state may not designate as a universal waste any waste which is not a hazardous waste in that state. For example, a state that is not authorized for the Toxicity Characteristic could not designate a waste that exhibited the Toxicity Characteristic as a universal waste (60 FR 25492, Page 25537; May 11, 1995).

If an authorized state adds a new hazardous waste to its universal waste program, management of that waste under the universal waste regulations would only be allowed within that state and in other states that have added the waste to their universal waste programs as well.  For example, a waste generated within a state that has added the waste to its universal waste program can be managed as a universal waste, however, shipments of that waste to a state that has not added the waste to its universal waste program must comply with the full hazardous waste requirements (60 FR 25492, 25537; May 11, 1995).

Additional guidance on adding wastes to state universal waste programs is available in the following memo:

Memo, Shapiro to Regions; February 13, 1997 (RCRA Online 14088) 

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Can universal waste handlers treat universal waste?

Small and large quantity handlers of universal waste are prohibited from diluting or treating universal waste (40 CFR Sections 273.11(b) and 273.31(b)).

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Are universal waste handlers required to recycle their wastes?

Universal waste handlers, as defined in 40 CFR Section 273.9 , are not required to recycle their wastes in order to take advantage of the less stringent requirements in Part 273 . Limiting universal waste management options to recycling complicates regulation and discourages participation in the universal waste collection program. The regulated community is more willing to participate in collection programs if they are not required to determine prior to initiating collection whether the wastes can be recycled (60 FR 25492, 25502; May 11, 1995).

Universal waste handlers send their waste to destination facilities that are designated facilities under RCRA to treat, dispose of or recycle a particular category of universal waste (40 CFR 273.9).

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Do the regulations in Part 273 apply to universal waste destined for both recycling and disposal?

The universal waste management standards in Part 273 apply to both universal waste destined for recycling and universal waste destined for disposal (60 FR 25492, 25501; May 11, 1995).  One goal of the universal waste standards is to encourage resource conservation but EPA believes that limiting the rule to universal waste destined for recycling may discourage collection programs. Therefore, not limiting the universal waste program to recycling makes the regulations less complex and encourages the participation of generators of universal waste.  In many cases, it may not be possible to make a recycling determination early in the universal waste collection process and the determination may vary over time making compliance enforcement difficult (60 FR 25492, 25502).  If universal waste is eventually disposed of, then the destination facility is subject to full RCRA regulation (Section 273.60).
 

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How long can a handler accumulate universal waste on site?

A handler may accumulate universal waste for no longer than one year from the date the waste was generated or received from another handler. However, handlers may accumulate universal waste for longer than one year if such activity is solely for the purpose of accumulating quantities to facilitate proper recovery, treatment, or disposal (40 CFR 273.15 and 273.35).

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How is a handler required to mark the accumulation start date for universal waste?

Small and large quantity handlers of universal waste who accumulate universal waste must be able to demonstrate the length of time that the universal waste has been accumulated from the date it becomes a waste or is received. The handler may make this demonstration by taking any of the following steps:

  1. Placing the universal waste in a container and marking or labeling the container with the earliest date that any universal waste in the container became a waste or was received; 
  2.  Marking or labeling each individual item of universal waste (e.g.., each battery or thermostat) with the date it became a waste or was received; 
  3. Maintaining an inventory system on site that identifies the date each universal waste became a waste or was received; 
  4. Maintaining an inventory system on site that identifies the earliest date that any universal waste in a group of universal waste items became a waste or was received; 
  5. Placing the universal waste in a specific accumulation area and identifying the earliest date that any universal waste in the area became a waste or was received; or 
  6. Any other method which clearly demonstrates the length of time that the universal waste has been accumulated from the date it becomes a waste or is received (40 CFR Sections 273.15(c) and 273.35(c) ).

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Are universal waste handlers required to take part in an annual review of the initial employee training?

Universal waste handlers are not required to conduct an annual review of the initial employee training. Handlers of universal waste need only comply with the employee training requirements in Part 273. For example, small quantity handlers must inform all employees who handle universal waste of the proper waste handling procedures appropriate to the type of universal waste handled at the facility (Section 273.16). Large quantity handlers must ensure that all employees are thoroughly familiar with proper waste handling and emergency procedures (Section 273.36). A universal waste handler must provide annual training reviews only if the handler is also an LQG (Section 265.16(c)).

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Can universal waste be shipped off site without a hazardous waste manifest?

Universal waste regulations do not require small or large quantity handlers of universal waste to use a manifest for transportation off site. Small quantity handlers of universal waste are not required to keep records of their off-site shipments (Section 273.19). Large quantity handlers of universal waste must follow the tracking requirements in Section 273.39, which include keeping a record of each off-site shipment of universal waste from the handler to other facilities. The record may take the form of a log, invoice, manifest, bill of lading, or other shipping document.

Additional clarification can be found in the following guidance document:

Monthly Call Center Report Question, May 1998 (RCRA Online #14273)

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Must universal waste handlers keep records of all universal waste shipments?

A large quantity handler of universal waste must keep a record of each shipment of universal waste received and sent and must retain those records for at least three years (Section 273.39). A small quantity handler of universal waste is not required to keep records of shipments of universal waste (Section 273.19).

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Where can a universal waste handler send or take a shipment of universal waste?

A universal waste handler can send or take a shipment of universal waste to another universal waste handler, a foreign destination, or a destination facility (273.18(a) and 273.38(a)). A "destination facility" is a facility that treats, disposes of, or recycles a particular category of universal waste (273.9). The standards for destination facilities can be found in Part 273 Subpart E. EPA recommends that all handlers of hazardous waste, including universal waste, ensure that the facilities to which they are sending that waste are managing it responsibly and in compliance with the applicable regulatory requirements.

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Who can transport universal wastes?

Universal wastes can be self-transported by the handler of the waste or can be transported by a third-party. The person transporting the waste must comply with the transportation standards in 40 CFR part 273 subpart D of the universal waste regulations. These standards prohibit disposal or treatment of the universal wastes and cover management standards, complying with Depart of Transportation regulations, storage time limits, responding to releases, and exports.

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Are transporters of universal waste required to have an EPA identification number?

There is no regulatory citation in 40 CFR Part 273, Subpart D, that requires a universal waste transporter to have an EPA identification number; however, state requirements may be more stringent, so check with your state program.

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Once cleanup residue from an accidental spill of a universal waste pesticide is contained, may the transporter continue to manage the residue as universal waste under Part 273?

The cleanup residue must meet the Part 273 definition of universal waste pesticide for the transporter to continue to manage it as universal waste. The spilled pesticide residue is likely to be quite different in form and composition from the original universal waste. Therefore, the destination facility to which the universal waste is sent may not be able to, or permitted to, treat or dispose of such cleanup residue. If the transporter determines that the cleanup residue no longer meets the definition of universal waste pesticide in 273.9, then the transporter must determine whether the residue is hazardous (273.54(b)). If so, the residue is subject to all applicable requirements in Parts 260 through 272, and the transporter is subject to the applicable RCRA Subtitle C generator standards in Part 262. If the transporter determines that the residue meets the definition of universal waste pesticide, then the residue can continue to be managed as universal waste (60 FR 25492, 25528; May 11, 1995).

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Are universal wastes considered hazardous wastes for purposes of the Department of Transportation (DOT) Hazardous Materials (HAZMAT) regulations?

Although universal wastes are considered hazardous wastes under RCRA, unlike many other hazardous wastes, universal wastes are not automatically considered hazardous wastes under the DOT HAZMAT regulations since they do not require hazardous waste manifests when transported (40 CFR Section 273.52). However, it is important to note that the RCRA requirements do not preempt DOT’s standards if a material is a hazmat of its own accord.

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How are waste batteries managed under universal waste?

Specific management standards for batteries include containing any universal waste battery that shows evidence of leakage, spillage, or damage that could cause leakage. The container must be closed, structurally sound, and compatible with the batteries. Batteries or battery packs may be sorted, mixed, discharged, regenerated, disassembled into individual batteries, or removed from products as long as the individual battery cell is not breached. Cells may be opened to remove electrolyte from the battery, but must be closed again immediately. Electrolyte or any other material generated by the handler must be evaluated to determine if it is a hazardous waste and, if so, managed appropriately under 40 CFR part 262 regulations. 

View a general comparison of regulatory requirements under the hazardous waste regulations versus under the Universal Waste Rule.

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What types of batteries can be managed as universal waste in accordance with Part 273?

For the purpose of the universal waste regulations, EPA defines a battery as a device consisting of one or more electrically connected electrochemical cells that is designed to receive, store, and deliver energy (Section 273.9).  Intact, unbroken batteries from which the electrolyte has been removed are covered by the definition.  This definition does not exclude an item from the definition of battery and the universal waste program based on its type, size, age, or whether it's wet or dry.  Rather, EPA's intent is to include all those items commonly understood to be batteries (60 FR 25492, 25504; May 11, 1995).  However, lead-acid batteries that are managed under Part 266, Subpart G, are not subject to the universal waste standards.  The universal waste management standards only apply to those lead-acid batteries that are not managed under Part 266, Subpart G (Section 273.2(b)(1)).

If a specific type of battery is not hazardous, it is not covered under the universal waste rule (40 CFR 273.2(b)(3)).

Additional guidance regarding batteries covered under the universal waste regulations is available in the following documents:

Memo, Shapiro to Senior RCRA Policy Managers; February 13, 1997 (RCRA Online 14088) 
Monthly Call Center Report Question; May 1996 (RCRA Online 13783)
Monthly Call Center Report Question; December 1995 (RCRA Online 13772) 

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May a handler of universal waste manage broken or damaged batteries as universal wastes?

A handler of universal waste may only manage broken or damaged hazardous waste batteries as universal wastes if the breakage or damage does not constitute a breach in the cell casing. The definition of battery in Section 273.9 does not explicitly state that all batteries must be whole; however, the definition includes an intact, unbroken battery from which the electrolyte has been removed (60 FR 25492, 25504; May 11, 1995). Additionally, the requirements for handlers of universal waste allow certain management activities, such as sorting and mixing batteries, provided the batteries or cell casings are not breached and remain intact (Sections 273.13(a)(2) and 273.33(a)(2)). Therefore, universal waste batteries are intended to be intact (i.e., where the casing of each individual battery cell is not breached). EPA recognizes that batteries may become damaged or broken during handling. Therefore, the requirements for handlers of universal waste require that they contain any universal waste battery that shows evidence of leakage, spillage, or damage that could cause leakage under reasonably foreseeable conditions in a container (Sections 273.13(a)(1) and 273.33(a)(1)). The container must be closed, structurally sound, compatible with the battery's contents, and capable of enclosing potential releases. For example, the container should have no structural defects, severe rusting, or deterioration (60 FR 25492, 25522; May 11, 1995). Universal waste handlers should contact the appropriate implementing agency to inquire about any additional or more stringent requirements that may apply.

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Are generators of spent lead acid batteries required to manage them under Part 266, Subpart G, or under Part 273?

Generators may choose the management standards with which they will comply. That is, they may either manage their batteries under the standards provided in Subpart G of Part 266 for spent lead- acid batteries that are being reclaimed or they may comply with the universal waste regulations in Part 273 (60 FR 25505; May 11, 1995). In either case, the generator must comply with all the relevant conditions and requirements for the standard they choose and may not mix and match requirements.

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How are waste pesticides managed under universal waste?

Specific management standards for pesticides include preventing releases to the environment by containing them in tanks, containers, or transport vehicles or vessels that are structurally sound and adequate to prevent leakage. The containers must be kept closed and cannot show any damage or leakages.

View a general comparison of regulatory requirements under the hazardous waste regulations versus under the Universal Waste Rule.

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What is “mercury-containing equipment”?

Mercury-containing equipment is a device or part of a device that contains elemental mercury integral to its function. Examples of items that meet this definition are mercury thermostats and thermometers, mercury switches and the devices that contain them, mercury barometers and mercury manometers. This definition does not include batteries or lamps.

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How is waste mercury-containing equipment managed under universal waste?

Specific management standards for mercury-containing equipment include preventing releases to the environment by containing them in containers that are structurally sound and adequate to prevent breakage. The containers must be kept closed and cannot show any damage or leakages.

A handler of mercury-containing equipment may remove an ampule of mercury from the equipment if:

  • the ampule is also managed to prevent damage or releases,
  • if the personnel are properly trained,
  • if the removal is done over a containment device,
  • if the area is ventilated to meet Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards and
  • if any broken ampules or ampules that may break are cleaned up and managed under the hazardous waste regulations at 40 CFR parts 260 through 272.

Handlers of mercury-containing equipment can remove an open housing that contains mercury from the equipment if they immediately seal the housing so the mercury cannot escape with an air-tight seal and then manage the housing as they would an ampule.

View a general comparison of regulatory requirements under the hazardous waste regulations versus under the Universal Waste Rule.

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How do individual homeowners comply with the Mercury Containing Equipment Final Rule?

The universal waste regulations provide an alternative set of management standards for RCRA hazardous waste generators (40 CFR  Section 273.1(b)). The Mercury Containing Equipment Final Rule added mercury-containing equipment (MCE) to the Federal list of universal wastes regulated under the RCRA hazardous waste regulations (70 FR 45508; August 5, 2005). Specifically, MCE is defined in this rule as a device or part of a device (including thermostats, but excluding batteries and lamps) that contains elemental mercury integral to its function (Section 260.10). Therefore, the MCE Final Rule applies to generators of hazardous waste MCE who choose to manage their MCE waste under the universal waste regulations in Part 273. In order to comply with the MCE universal waste regulations, a generator must comply with all applicable regulations in Part 273, depending on universal waste handler status, including:

However, it is important to note that households that generate spent MCE are exempt from the federal hazardous waste management requirements under the household hazardous waste (HHW) exemption in Section 261.4(b)(1) (70 FR 45508, 44509; August 5, 2005). Household waste means any material (including garbage, trash, and sanitary wastes in septic tanks) derived from households (including single and multiple residences, hotels and motels, bunkhouses, ranger stations, crew quarters, campgrounds, picnic grounds, and day-use recreation areas) (Section 261.4(b)(1)).HHW is appropriately identified by applying two criteria. First, the waste must be generated by individuals on the premises of a temporary or permanent residence for individuals that is a household (49 FR 44978, 44978; November 13, 1984).  Second, the waste stream must be composed primarily of materials found in the waste generated by consumers in their homes.

Homeowners interested in hazardous waste disposal of exempt household spent MCE should contact their local government about its household hazardous waste collection program.

Additional guidance regarding the HHW exclusion is available in the following documents:

Memo, Helms to Toro; July 12, 1996 (RCRA Online #11958 )
Memo, Petruska to McNally; February 28, 1995 (RCRA Online #11897 )
Monthly Call Center Report Question; March 1990 (RCRA Online #13358 )

This guidance represents clarification of the federal regulations. Since most states are authorized to implement the federal regulations, you should contact your state environmental agency for guidance.

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How are waste lamps managed under universal waste?

Specific management standards for lamps include preventing releases to the environment by containing them in containers that are structurally sound and adequate to prevent breakage. The containers must be kept closed and cannot show any damage or leakages. Any broken lamp must be cleaned up and placed in a container that will prevent release of the pieces to the environment.

View a general comparison of regulatory requirements under the hazardous waste regulations versus under the Universal Waste Rule.

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Why use fluorescent bulbs if they contain mercury?

Fluorescents are significantly more energy-efficient than incandescent bulbs because they require less energy to provide lighting. Electrical generation from coal-burning power plants also releases mercury into the environment. The use of fluorescent bulbs in place of incandescent bulbs lowers energy use and thus reduces the associated release of mercury from many power plants. Fluorescent bulbs are also more cost effective because they last up to 10 times longer than incandescent bulbs.

Please visit EPA's page on Compact Fluorescent Lamps for more information.

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Can broken mercury-containing lamps be managed as universal waste pursuant to Part 273?

EPA has not limited the definition of "lamp" in Section 273.9 to intact lamps only.  Broken lamps may be managed as a universal waste but are typically more expensive to recycle or dispose as compared to intact lamps.  State regulations can be more stringent and may not allow management of broken lamps as universal waste.  

Under the universal waste regulations of 40 CFR Part 273, universal waste lamps must be stored and packaged in a way that minimizes breakage. The containers or packages must remain closed and lack evidence of leakage, spillage or damage that could cause leakage under reasonably foreseeable conditions (Sections 273.13(d)(1) and 273.33(d)(1)). Examples of acceptable packaging include evenly spacing the lamps in double or triple-ply cardboard containers with closed lids (64 FR 35479; July 6, 1999). 

If, however, any unintentional breakage does occur, then universal waste handlers must immediately clean up and contain any lamps that are broken or show evidence of breakage, leakage, or damage that could cause the release of mercury or other hazardous constituents into the environment (Sections 273.13(d)(2) and 273.33(d)(2)). An example of such containment includes placing unintentionally broken lamps in closed wax fiberboard drums (64 FR 35479; July 6, 1999). 


What is lamp crushing and drum-top crushing?

Crushing is the intentional breaking of fluorescent and other mercury lamps for the purpose of volume reduction. Crushing reduces the physical volume of lamps but does not recover any mercury. Crushing is not recycling, but it can be a step in the process when the crushed material is further treated by a recycling process that includes retorting. Generally, hazardous waste lamps should not be landfilled as municipal solid waste. Authorized states have varying regulations regarding the handling, recycling and disposal of mercury-containing lamps. Handlers that choose to intentionally crush lamps must do so in accordance with authorized state programs. For more information specific to your state, contact your state environmental regulatory agency.

It should be noted that lamp crushing can release mercury into the air and pose a health threat to crusher operators and building occupants if the crusher is not operating properly. Lamp crushing can pose a threat if operators do not have the appropriate protective equipment.

Drum-top crushing is done using a mechanical device that fits on top of a 55-gallon collection drum. Whole lamps are broken in the system but components are not separated, and the drum will contain hazardous mercury, phosphor powder, glass and mixed metals. Crushing lamps into drums releases mercury into the filter, which also becomes hazardous.

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What is a “green-cap” fluorescent lamp?

Green cap fluorescent lamps are lamps that are marketed as “lower” in mercury content. EPA does not regulate the labeling of low-mercury lamps.

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Can a generator manage green tip fluorescent bulbs as universal waste or are these types of bulbs considered non-hazardous waste?

EPA does not have a separate policy regarding the disposal or recycling of "green tip" lamps. Although these bulbs are not listed hazardous wastes, they are still hazardous waste if they exhibit a characteristic. Under the RCRA regulations, generators must determine whether a waste exhibits a characteristic either by testing the waste or applying knowledge of the hazardous waste characteristic to the waste in light of materials or the processes used (Section 262.11). It is the generator’s responsibility to make a hazardous waste determination for all green tip fluorescent bulbs prior to disposing of the bulbs. The green tip fluorescent bulbs typically contain mercury in lower quantities than other fluorescent bulbs. 

Fluorescent bulbs that are determined to be hazardous wastes may take advantage of the alternative less stringent universal waste regulations found in Part 273. EPA developed the streamlined universal waste regulations to encourage recycling and resource conservation while ensuring adequate protection of human health and the environment (64 FR 36465, 36472; July 6, 1999). Managing non-hazardous fluorescent bulbs as universal wastes is not mandatory; however, EPA encourages recycling of fluorescent lamps whether hazardous or not.

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An elementary school is in the process of remodeling and is replacing its light fixtures with more energy-efficient lamps. This process will generate more than 5,000 kg of spent hazardous waste lamps that will be subject to the universal waste management. What responsibilities do the school and the contractor performing the work have under the universal waste regulations?

Both the school and the contractor will be subject to the universal waste handler standards in Part 273 because they would both be considered universal waste handlers. A universal waste handler is defined as a generator of universal waste or the owner or operator of a facility that receives universal waste from other universal waste handlers (Section 273.9). A generator is any person, by site, whose act or process produces hazardous waste or whose act first causes a hazardous waste to become subject to regulation (Section 273.9).

In this case, the school used the lamps and made the determination to discard them and is thus a generator. The contractor that actually removes the universal waste lamps from service is considered a handler and generator of the waste making the school and the contractor cogenerators (64 FR 36466, 36474; July 6, 1999). As cogenerators, both the school and the contractor will be jointly and severally liable as universal waste handlers. EPA recommends that when two or more parties meet the definition of generator they should mutually agree to have one party perform the generator duties (45 FR 72024, 72026; October 30, 1980). The generator duties in this case are those required of a large quantity handler of universal waste in Part 273, Subpart C, which apply to universal waste handlers accumulating 5,000 kilograms or more universal waste at any time (Section 273.9).

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