Those AA batteries hanging on the display near the cash register don’t look like an environmental hazard.
But once those batteries become unsalable – perhaps because they were returned or the packaging is broken – they turn into hazardous waste that’s subject to a complex set of storage and disposal requirements.
Batteries aren’t the only type of hazardous waste that retailers must contend with. Paint, insect sprays, cosmetics, fluorescent light bulbs and a long list of other ordinary household products are classified as hazardous waste under the Federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) and similar state regulations.
Retailers may not think of themselves as hazardous waste generators, but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state law enforcement authorities have increasingly targeted them for enforcement, imposing tens of millions of dollars in fines for violations of state and federal hazardous waste laws. In May 2013, a major retailer was hit with more than $110 million in fines for violations of RCRA and other federal environmental regulations. California prosecutors have also been cracking down on retailers, and a number of recent “dumpster dives” have led to enforcement actions under RCRA and state hazardous waste laws. New York has indicated that it plans to follow suit.
To avoid prosecution, any retailer who stores or disposes of products that can be considered “hazardous waste” must comply with RCRA’s complex packaging, labeling, recordkeeping, inspection and training requirements. If a retailer takes these materials to a central warehouse or distributor, it is considered a “hazardous waste transporter” that is subject to additional RCRA regulations.
For starters, retailers must determine, at the store level, whether any of their waste is considered hazardous waste. Often this involves consulting each item’s Material Safety Data Sheet. Then retailers must comply with regulations designed to ensure the safe handling of that waste, which include properly packaging it, labeling it as hazardous waste, and marking it with the date storage began. Storage areas must be inspected, personnel must be trained, and hazardous waste must be transported to a permitted facility and records kept.
RCRA violations can carry heavy consequences – up to $37,500 per day in administrative and civil penalties alone. And because the government often identifies multiple violations, the fines can multiply quickly.
With the increased focus on hazardous waste violations by retailers, it is crucial that retailers put a facilities management plan in place that includes planning, training and procedures for dealing with hazardous waste.