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osha epa responsibilityHopefully, the previous post in this series gave you a better understanding of responsibility for safety data sheets and chemical labeling.

Whenever questions arise about a product’s chemistry, instinct tells us to examine its SDS. However, as discussed previously, there is an inherent problem in the reliability of some of the information found on SDS since several sections pertaining to the environment (EPA) and transportation (DOT) are not enforced by OSHA as the information is under the jurisdiction of other agencies, which in turn will not enforce sections of a document under the jurisdiction of OSHA – a veritable catch-22.

If responsibility for environmental and transportation information doesn’t lie with those responsible for the SDS, then who is responsible for ensuring the proper handling of hazardous material when transported and proper disposal of hazardous waste?

Environmental vs. Transportation

When it comes to environmental versus transportation – specifically hazardous waste versus hazardous materials – responsibility is relatively straightforward regarding hazardous waste in that it lies with the waste generator. Through The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), the EPA states that responsibility for the proper disposal of hazardous waste lies with whoever creates the waste. However, clarity starts to wane in determining when a product becomes waste and further, once considered waste, the determination if it is, in fact, hazardous.

The first step in understanding the responsibilities in generating waste is to clarify some basic aspects involved, such as the distinction between consumer and commerce, and when the generator’s responsibility for the waste ends.

When you dispose of something used for personal care or your household at home, you do so as a consumer. But if you dispose of the same material during the course of business operations, the waste materials may be subject to RCRA. For example, to dispose of oil or paint generated from performing maintenance on your vehicle or home, as a consumer you may take it to a local recycling center. However, when performing the same maintenance at work, the same waste is subject to EPA requirements. As such, it is advisable to never remove hazardous waste from where it was generated unless it is being done by a licensed and/or permitted reclamation service provider.

Another distinction that often goes unnoticed is that the waste generator’s responsibility for hazardous waste generated is ‘from cradle to grave’ – a common phrase encapsulating the generator’s responsibility from classification to proper disposal of hazardous waste: from the time it is identified as hazardous waste until the final disposition (destruction, treatment). And in some instances, this responsibility is indefinite.

Defining Waste

The late Steve Peltier, a very well-versed sales representative in the waste management industry, provided the best rule of thumb: ‘If a material or product has any intrinsic value, it is not waste.’

Therefore, products that would normally be considered waste – those with expiration dates or materials able to be repurposed – shouldn’t be considered waste as long as they have some intrinsic value. Examples would include expired pharmaceuticals eligible for credit or refund upon return to the supplier, or used oils, such as cooking and lubrication that can be harvested as fuel for combustion.

And still, the remaining question of who is responsible for determining if the waste is subject to disposal under RCRA remains the same – the waste generator. This means that once you identify something as having no value – POOF! – you now have waste, compounded further when you consider who then qualifies as a waste generator: carpenters, dentists, doctors, mechanic, clinics, hospitals, manufacturing plants, distribution centers, retail stores. And since these individuals and industries are not commonly identified as waste generators – let alone hazardous waste generators – waste management and disposal can prove an even more arduous task.

The most definitive means with which to determine if waste is hazardous is for the waste generator to have it tested by a certified laboratory, a costly, time-consuming expense not normally associated with many professional services. A more practical and reasonable approach, however, is simply to spend a bit of time understanding the obligations of hazardous waste management. Simply assume everything is hazardous and work backward to prove the product is not hazardous by using information the manufacturer is required to supply throughout the OSHA-enforced sections of the SDS or utilize the services of a reputable reclamation service provider.

Taking Responsibility

Thankfully, there are companies that specialize in working with waste generators to properly profile, manage and dispose of hazardous waste products. So when looking for a third-party reclamation service provider, do your homework – ask to see all of their federal and/or state licenses and permits – even if they require a nondisclosure agreement in the process and ask for references. Taking the time to interview prospective service providers is well worth the effort because any responsibility ultimately falls on you, the waste generator.

In our next installment, we will discuss the last of the three components of hazardous responsibility: the transportation of hazardous materials.