Waste Regulations Are Not Exactly Universal

By DAVID FISHER/ecoRI News staff

The state Department of Environmental Management (DEM) recently proposed several amended regulations concerning what, in waste management parlance, is considered universal waste.

The term universal is rather misleading. Universal, in the case of waste, refers not to all waste, as one might assume, but to potentially hazardous wastes that could end up in the solid-waste stream.

The line between universal and hazardous is a thin one. Universal waste crosses that line when it is improperly disposed of, handled, stored, labeled and/or processed.

The current regulations already classify many potentially hazardous wastes as universal wastes, including all types of batteries, pesticides, mercury containing devices — thermostats, thermometers, barometers, sphygmomanometers, more commonly known as blood-pressure cuffs, electric switches and relays — and mercury containing lamps, such as fluorescent, neon, high-intensity discharge and metal halide lights.

The DEM seeks to expand the definition of universal waste to include e-waste — basically, anything with a circuit board in it — medical waste — anything that is used in the treatment of humans and animals, such as syringes — tattoo needles and silver containing photo-fixing solutions.

By reclassifying these wastes as universal, rather than hazardous, the producers have up to one year to store them, rather than the 90-day storage limit on hazardous waste. This would allow producers to collect them in larger quantities, and handlers to pick them up less frequently. The reclassification also would allow handlers to use a bill of lading for disposal, rather than procuring a hazardous waste handler license, which requires more state oversight and more money. By loosening regulations on handlers and producers of these wastes, the DEM hopes to lessen the financial impact of handling and increase the proper disposal of said substances and products.

Some concern has been raised about the possible toxicity of pharmaceuticals in the solid-waste stream. Drugs present a particularly difficult problem to the waste industry. In most cases, waste handlers and governmental organizations do not have the technical expertise to assess the risks that these substances pose, or proper disposal methods and techniques. Drug and medical waste also present a problem in the case of mandated quarantine.

Let’s say a local poultry producer has an outbreak of avian flu. The farm reports this outbreak, and is then quarantined by the DEM. It’s certainly less hazardous to process and dispose of possibly contaminated medical waste and animals on site, rather than to transport those wastes and animals to another location for disposal. The DEM has made provisions in the amended regulations to allow the director to bypass regulations in just such a case.

In the case of unused or out-of-date pharmaceuticals, there has been some federal and state discussion of mandated producer take back, whereas, a producer, such as Pfizer or Merck, would be required to take back expired or unused drugs for disposal. The idea here is the producers of these drugs know the potential environmental and human health hazards posed by these substances, and have the financial ability and infrastructure to dispose of them properly. This has become the norm in the European Union, as it changes their approach to hazardous waste to a precautionary, rather than a reactionary model.

Chemotherapy drugs and waste are good examples. These drugs are, by design, hazardous to humans. They are engineered to kill human cells.

The proposed amendments are written, and then offered to the public for comments and input. The DEM has received hundreds of comments and concerns about these proposed amendments. Some believe the amended definitions are too broad, especially in the case of e-waste. One local veterinarian offered six pages of comments, concerns and suggestions.

The proposed regulations also are being designed to eliminate loopholes, and to act in concert with current state and federal legislation and guidelines. In some cases, Rhode Island waste regulation is more stringent than federal regulations. A copy of the proposed amendments can be found here.

The DEM expects the new regulations to be in effect by late June or early July. Municipal waste transfer stations expect e-waste, but check with your local transfer station to see if it takes other forms of universal waste. The Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation’s Eco-Depot also accepts computers and monitors, and your local Home Depot will accept fluorescent bulbs for disposal. Contact the Eco-Depot at 401-942- 1430.

Anyone who sees or knows of questionable hazardous waste disposal techniques should report them to the DEM by calling 401-222-1360. Then e-mail me at dave@ecoRI.org.

For more information, visit dem.ri.gov/pubs.