Commentary & Analysis
Changes Coming to EPA’s Hazardous Waste Regulations
The Environmental Protection Agency made some changes to its “generator standard” regarding the safe disposal of hazardous waste. Here is what the printing industry needs to know.
By Richard Romano
Published: April 10, 2017
On March 21, SGIA, PIA, and FTA hosted a Webinar presented by three members of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that detailed coming changes to the “generator standard,” or regulations regarding the disposal of hazardous waste. The changes came about in collaboration with the printing industry, among others, to simplify, clarify, and make consistent the various rules regarding hazardous waste.
The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act was first enacted by Congress in 1976 and regulates—among other things—the management of solid waste and hazardous waste. “The goals of the program are protecting human health and the environment, conserving energy and natural resources, and reducing the amount of waste generated,” said Kathy Lett, Environmental Protection Specialist at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, by way of background.
The recent revision made more than 60 changes to the generator standard. “We heard over the years that the structure of the Federal generator regulations are hard to follow,” said Lett. On top of that, individual states could either adopt the Federal regulations or write their own, which fosters confusion, especially for establishments that may have facilities in more than one state.
The new generator rules focus on the waste generation program and what the generators (that is, generators of hazardous waste) need to do, procedures and requirements which vary by volume of hazardous waste generated. The EPA classifies generators into three categories, the terms for which have been changed in the most recent revision. The new categories are: Very Small Quantity Generators (VSQG), or those that generate less than 27 gallons of hazardous waste per month (this is a category that was renamed; it had been called “conditionally exempt”); Small Quantity Generators (SQG), who generate 27 to 275 gallons per month; and Large Quantity Generators (LQG), who generate more than 275 gallons per month. (The quantities are also measured in drums, pounds, or kilograms.) As you would expect, the requirements get more stringent the more waste that is generated.
The revised regulations make it easier for generators to find which volume category they fall into and what the compliance procedures are. “We think that the improved reorganization is going to be better for everyone in the long run, both for understanding the rules and implementing them at your site,” said Lett.
Perhaps the biggest concern of the printing industry vis-à-vis hazardous waste is what is called “episodic generation,” which the revised regulations now address. Sometimes, a particular facility will, in a singular instance, generate a level of hazardous waste that exceeds the limit of their typical generator category, which opens them up to more stringent reporting and other logistical procedures. “This could be something that’s planned like a tank cleanout, or something unplanned, like a spill,” said Lett. “For a short period, the regulation would require that smaller generator to comply with the requirements for a higher category.” That is, they don’t regularly generate this much, but at one particular time, they do.
“That has been a big issue in the industry,” said Marci Kinter, Vice President, Government & Business Information, for SGIA, in a post-webinar conversation. “They may be going from an analog to a digital process and all of a sudden they have all this analog ink they don’t know what to do with.” They’re not really changing their generator status, but they have this material that they have to dispose of. “Now that printers who are looking to change out chemicals or maybe have old chemicals on site will have an opportunity to dispose of these chemicals safely through the new episodic generation element.”
The episodic generation provision grants generators one event per calendar year (with the ability to petition for a second) without bumping them up into the higher generator level.
Effectively complying with the hazardous waste disposal regulations hinges on properly identifying what is hazardous waste, which is also clarified in the revised regulations. “Everyone generates some hazardous waste, although they may not consider it hazardous waste,” said Kinter. “If you are a wide-format printer, you do need to ensure that when you empty out your ink cartridges and you have extra ink in the lines, you need to determine if the waste ink is indeed hazardous and then dispose of it correctly.”
So the new rules provide a bit more guidance as to the extent to which hazardous waste regulations apply. “Often, the wide-format printer—or printer using any digital system—doesn’t realize that you can’t take the ink that remains in the line or the solvent you use to back flush your line and just pour it down the drain or put it out with the trash.”
Of course, not all ink systems are considered hazardous waste, but still need to be disposed of properly. “You can’t dispose of liquids in the Dumpster so you still need to gather and store the liquid and make sure you are disposing it correctly,” said Kinter.
The new revised generator rules—which have been rewritten in close collaboration with generators themselves—go into effect effectively on May 30, 2017, in Iowa and Alaska, as well as territories and tribal lands, since the EPA runs the program in those parts of the country. For the rest of the states—which would be the majority—the program is run through a process called State Authorization and Adoption. “They’ll have to go through their own rule-making process, and will have to pick up the more stringent provisions,” said Mary Beth Sheridan, Environmental Protection Specialist at the EPA. That will be done by June 1, 2018, but if they need to change state law, they get an extra year.
As we enter what may be an age of deregulation, it’s important to understand that abolishing regulations entirely is counterproductive—and not particularly desired, even by the industry itself. After all, no one wants hazardous waste to be handled incorrectly.
“What we’re advocating is that [the EPA] look at these regulations and really make sure that they’re not impacting the ability of industry to grow and compete,” said Kinter. “It’s taking a look at some of those underlying regulatory issues and modernizing them. A lot of them have not been reviewed and modernized over the years.”
Take Executive Order13777, Enforcing the Regulatory Reform Agenda, issued on February 24, 2017, which orders each agency department to focus on what regulations need to be modernized or replaced. Basically, said Kinter, “how to make life easier for the industry without creating havoc. We’re trying to make sure we maintain the current structure but in a manner that makes sense for the environment.”
Ultimately, it’s about striking a balance between the needs of the industry and the desire—the need—to protect the environment. After all, reducing waste—be it hazardous or not—benefits everyone. That’s one benefit of the growth of digital printing. “When you move toward digital print production, you are reducing waste,” said Kinter. “It’s not an entirely ‘green’ process, but you are having a beneficial impact on the environment.”
Of course, not all products can or will be produced digitally, but the goal is still to minimize the environmental impact of those processes.