hazardous waste
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New Era of EPA Governance on Horizon

By Todd Harris

Ask most owners of small- and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) how much hazardous waste their company produces, and you may get a quizzical look.

For many SMBs, the complex rules and enforcement policies of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have combined to make waste compliance a source of confusion and uncertainty. For many years, SMBs have desired a more complete understanding of the rules and some have added their voices to a push by the business community as a whole to bring greater transparency to their own regulatory obligations in handling hazardous waste.

This is no surprise: it was three decades ago when the EPA authored its current rule governing how hazardous waste is classified, recorded, disposed of and reported. Originally designed for the manufacturing industry, the rule eventually stretched to include retailers and other businesses. The uniform expansion of the rule’s reach to the business community and the changes in environmental awareness, technology and business climate all merit modernization of the process.

EPA’s new rule proposal seeks to provide such clarity, offering a new rule that would update regulations for easier understanding, compliance and flexibility.

This newly proposed rule may substantially revise the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) regulatory requirements for generators of hazardous waste. The new rule, if implemented, will alter the “generator status,” or the classification of a business as it relates to the hazardous waste it produces. Many SMBs will see their generator status change and impact the way they are expected to handle, record and dispose of their hazardous waste.

EPA turning to data

The goal of the proposed revised generator rule is to enhance the safety of facilities, employees, and the general public by improving labeling of hazardous waste, which also can help with emergency planning and preparedness.

The move to modernize is part of a trend at the EPA to become more strategic and data-driven in its approach to regulation across various areas of its environmental oversight. Within hazardous waste, this data-centric approach is evident in the EPA’s Enforcement and Compliance History Online (ECHO) website, which houses data from inspections, enforcement actions and fines at facilities and businesses of all sizes across the country.

In the past four years EPA has conducted hundreds of inspections and levied more than $4.6 million in fines against SMBs— or “small quantity generators” that generate less than 2,200 pounds of hazardous waste per month. EPA actions for non-compliance include fines for violations such as mislabeling hazardous waste or improperly disposing of it.

Reclassifications may be coming

As the EPA continues to refine its approach regarding how facilities are classified, its increased reliance on data is likely to translate to a new regulatory atmosphere for SMBs.

The rule change could substantially impact a business’ generator status. The proposed changes include replacing the phrase “conditionally exempt small quantity generator” (CESQG) with “very small quantity generator” (VSQG). This updates aligns with the other two generator categories: large quantity generators (LQGs) and small quantity generators (SQG).

Generator status and the fact that regulation and enforcement activity typically vary by state, county and geographic region makes compliance with hazardous waste disposal a complex issue for SMBs. In this time of regulatory change, ensuring the proper disposal of hazardous waste is a foremost concern for this business sector.

Implementing an effective program

In addition to ongoing communications with the private sector, including a public comment review period on the proposed rule changes conducted in 2013, the EPA’s proposed change in hazardous waste regulation arises as other external influences combine to force businesses in the retail, healthcare and pharmaceutical industries to renew their focus around compliant disposal of hazardous waste.

Consumers today are hyper connected, socially aware and willing to research into a business before spending their money. As many businesses know, in this consumer driven economy, maintaining a customer’s loyalty is difficult. Much like data breaches that can compromise personal information and violate a customer’s privacy, a business that neglects to comply with environmental regulation governing hazardous waste risks alienating discriminating consumers who have endless choices about where and how they spend their dollars.

Although many brands have implemented hazardous waste management programs, the proposed regulatory change reflects increased awareness of the impact of hazardous waste on public safety and the environment. SMBs should monitor the proposed change in generator status rules, and determine how it impacts their hazardous waste management. A program that offers compliance but that is also simple and flexible can help a small business avoid EPA fines, maintain brand reputation and keep employees and the public safe from improperly handled hazardous waste.

Todd Harris is vice president at Stericycle Environmental Solutions, a leading provider of environmental and regulated waste management solutions.