Frequent Questions About Universal Waste
On this page:
- Who is affected by the universal waste regulations?
- What if I generate a very small amount of universal waste?
- What is “mercury-containing equipment”?
- What are the general requirements for small and large quantity handlers of universal waste?
- How are waste batteries managed under universal waste?
- How are waste pesticides managed under universal waste?
- How is waste mercury-containing equipment managed under universal waste?
- How are waste lamps managed under universal waste?
- Why are the universal waste regulations different in some states?
- What materials are universal wastes in my state?
- Who can transport universal wastes?
- Why use fluorescent bulbs if they contain mercury?
- What is lamp crushing and drum-top crushing?
- What is a “green-cap” fluorescent lamp?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 section 262.34.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 DOT regulations, storage time limits, responding to releases, and exports.
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.
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.
- Learn about the results of EPA's 2006 study on the performance of mercury lamp drum-top crusher (DTC) devices
- Read a 2012 study of results of a survey conducted by the Association of State and Territorial Solid Waste Management Officials Exit(ASTSWMO) about how states regulate drum-top crushers.
Green cap fluorescent lamps are lamps that are marketed as “lower” in mercury content. EPA does not regulate the labeling of low-mercury lamps.