The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) is the main federal law that governs solid and hazardous waste disposal in the USA. It was passed in 1976, as pollution from improper disposal of hazardous waste and the lack of a federal framework to ensure safe disposal became increasingly problematic.

RCRA gives the EPA the authority to regulate how waste is stored, transported and disposed of.

In this post, we’ll talk about what RCRA is meant to do, then look at what it means for the waste industry.

The four main goals of RCRA

RCRA’s four main goals are:

  1. Protecting human health and the environment from the potential hazards of waste disposal
  2. Conserving energy and natural resources
  3. Reducing the amount of waste generated
  4. Ensuring that wastes are managed in an environmentally-sound manner

It’s not just about controlling the way certain wastes are disposed of. RCRA makes waste producers responsible for all the waste they generate until it’s been appropriately disposed of. It’s part of a move to place waste management in the broader framework of resource management.

Cradle-to-grave liability

RCRA establishes cradle-to-grave liability: your waste is yours from the moment you generate it to disposal — and beyond. If it’s not correctly identified on a manifest (the most common cause of RCRA citations), or if it’s spilled en route, or if it’s landfilled inappropriately, the generator is responsible.

The generator can even be responsible for cleanup at landfill sites. Where the Treatment, Storage, and Disposal Facility (TSDF) isn’t able to meet the full cost of cleanup, waste generators are considered to have joint and several liability, weighted by the proportion of waste they put into the facility.

Generator categories under RCRA

RCRA establishes three categories of hazardous waste generators:

Very Small Quantity Generators (VSQGs)

  • Generate 100 kilograms or less of hazardous waste per month, or one kilogram or less of acutely hazardous waste.
  • Must identify all hazardous waste generated
  • May not accumulate more than 1,000 kilograms of hazardous waste at any one time
  • Must ensure that hazardous waste is delivered to a person or facility authorized to manage it

EPA VSQG fact sheet

Small Quantity Generator (SQG)

  • Generate more than 100 kilograms, but less than 1,000 kilograms, of hazardous waste per month. Note: if you generate more than one kilogram of acutely hazardous waste per month, you’re a Large Quantity Generator
  • May accumulate hazardous waste on-site for 180 days without a permit, or 270 days if shipping a distance greater than 200 miles
  • Cannot store more than 6,000 kilograms of hazardous waste on site
  • Must comply with hazardous waste manifest requirements of 40 CFR part 262, subpart B, and the pre-transport requirements at 40 CFR sections 262.30 through 262.33
  • Must manage hazardous waste in containers subject to 40 CFR sections 262.16(b)(2) and (3), and cannot accumulate waste on site for more than 180 days
  • Must comply with the preparedness and prevention requirements at 40 CFR sections 262.16(b)(8) and (9), including maintaining an internal communication system or alarm, portable fire extinguishers, and telephone or other contact capable of summoning emergency services
  • Must comply with the land disposal restriction requirements at 40 CFR part 268 which give detailed instructions on waste storage, treatment and disposal
  • Must always have one employee available to deal with emergencies, but a detailed, written contingency plan is not required
  • Must re-notify the EPA of SQG status every four years. The next deadline is September 1, 2021

Large Quantity Generator (LQG)

  • Generate over 1,000 kilograms of hazardous waste, or over 1 kilogram of acutely hazardous waste, every month
  • Can only accumulate waste on-site for a maximum of 90 days, with some exceptions
  • No limit on the quantity of waste that can be accumulated on-site
  • Waste must be stored in containers or buildings compliant with 40 CFR sections 262.17(a)(1)-(4) or drip pads compliant with 40 CFR part 265, subparts W and DD
  • Must comply with the hazardous waste manifest requirements of 40 CFR part 262 subpart B and the pre-transport requirements of 40 CFR sections 262.30 through 262.33
  • Must comply with the preparedness, prevention and emergency procedure requirements of 40 CFR part 262 subpart M and the land disposal restriction requirements of 40 CFR part 268
  • Must submit a biennial hazardous waste management report showing:
    • Facility’s EPA ID Number
    • Facility’s name and address
    • Quantity and nature of hazardous waste generated
    • Whether the hazardous waste was sent for recycling, treatment, storage, or disposal

Making solid waste determinations

solid waste determination


Hazardous waste is defined as solid waste not subject to exemptions.

Solid wastes are materials that are:

  • Abandoned: disposed of, burned or incinerated, or accumulated for disposal
  • Recycled in a manner that constitutes disposal such as being burned for fuel
  • Considered inherently waste-like
  • Expended or decommissioned military munitions

There’s more detail on how solid wastes are classified here.

Generators are responsible for making solid waste determinations. You can do that by answering these questions.

If it’s going to be:

  • ‘Abandoned’ — you want to get rid of it
  • Burned for fuel
  • Accumulated (less than 75% of it will be recycled in one calendar year)
  • Reclaimed
  • Inherently waste-like, posing a risk to human health

...and it’s not:

  • Legitimately recyclable
  • Still of use to your facility
  • Covered by an exemption

Then it’s solid waste.

Making hazardous waste determinations

It’s a generator’s responsibility to make hazardous waste determinations too. Once you know it’s a solid waste, how do you know it’s hazardous?

The EPA defines hazardous wastes in two ways:

1. Listed wastes

If it’s on the F, K, P or U lists, it’s a listed waste.

The F list contains wastes defined by what they are: solvents, wood preservatives, mining leaching wastes and more.

The K list is wastes defined by where they come from and contains wastes from 13 waste-producing industries including steel, chemicals and explosives.

The P and U list designate hazardous chemicals that are ‘inherently waste-like’ but unused. Rather than being through some process that makes them dangerous, they’re just dangerous in themselves.

2. Characteristic wastes

Characteristic wastes are defined by what they might do. There are four types: ignitable, corrosive, reactive, and toxic.

The international HAZMAT (HAZardous MATerials) codes can also be used to classify wastes.

To learn more about specific waste classifications, see this post.

Solid and hazardous waste exemptions

There are 26 solid waste exemptions and 17 hazardous waste exemptions that could see you and your wastes treated differently by the EPA.

Some of the most common include:

Solvent-contaminated wipes

Proper management allows these to be either washed and reused, or disposed of in a way that does not cause damage to health and the environment — despite the fact that they would otherwise be classified as hazardous waste.

Industrial wastewater discharges

Pipelines, storm drains and other routes for wastewater to leave an industrial facility are referred to as ‘point sources,’ and any facility that discharges pollutants from a point source is subject to regulations under the Clean Water Act. These regulations require facilities to get a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit from the EPA that specifies the amount of any given contaminant that can be discharged.

Excluded scrap metals

Scrap, swarf, shavings, turning and filings left over from production and repair of metal items are highly recyclable (97% of steel globally is now recycled). When collected and recycled, these scrap metal materials are exempt from solid waste regulations.

Exemptions from RCRA regulation are laid out in 40 CFR 261.4(a)(1).

Container management standards

waste containers

SQGs and LQGs have four ways to accumulate and manage hazardous waste on-site:

  1. Containers — portable devices in which a material is stored, transported, treated or disposed of
  2. Tanks — stationary devices, constructed primarily of non-earthen materials (unscrupulous generators can’t just dig a hole and say it’s a tank), for containing an accumulation of hazardous waste
  3. Drip pads — engineered structures that consist of a curbed, free-draining base, designed to convey kickback or drippage of preservatives from treated wood, precipitation and surface water run-on to an associated collection system. These are mostly found at wood-preserving plants and must also be primarily non-earthen
  4. Containment buildings— hazardous waste management units used to store or treat hazardous waste

The most commonly-used option is containers, typically steel drums. These must be:

  • In good condition, with no excessive rust, deep dents, bent rims or other damage likely to cause the container to fail
  • Without leaks. If leaks are discovered the container’s contents need to be transferred to another container or other compliant storage option
  • Compatible with the material they’re storing. Highly corrosive chemicals must be stored in plastic containers because they react with steel. Explosive or flammable wastes must be stored in bonded and grounded steel drums
  • Closed, including lid, bung caps and any other openings. If wastes have to be added to a container frequently, you can use sealable funnels or fast-latching lids. What you can’t do is leave the container open for convenience
  • LQGs must also comply with RCRA’s air emission standards in 40 CFR 265, Subparts AA, BB and CC
  • Inspected weekly to identify containers showing signs of deterioration or corrosion, and catch any damage or leaks early
  • Labeled for worker safety and to ensure that wastes are properly segregated and stored

Labeling

All hazardous waste containers must be marked with the words ‘hazardous waste’ as well as an indication of what is in the container. Containers in central accumulation areas must also be marked with an accumulation start date showing the date that waste was first put into the container. All container labeling elements must be clearly visible for inspection.

Before being transported off site, all containers must be labeled with the name of the waste generator and a label prohibiting improper disposal.

Time limits

  • SQGs are allowed to accumulate hazardous waste on-site without a permit for up to 180 days, or up to 270 days if the waste must be transported more than 200 miles
  • LQGs can accumulate and store hazardous waste for only 90 days

The EPA allows both types of generator to use satellite accumulation areas. These waste collection areas at or near the areas where waste is generated allow facilities to collect small volumes of waste regularly without triggering the accumulation ‘timer.’

Shipping hazardous waste

The ‘shipping chain’ consists of the generator, transporter(s) and destination facility. Each participant must have an EPA identification number, and receive RCRA and US Department of Transportation HAZMAT employee training.

Packaging, labeling and marking

  • Hazardous wastes must be packaged for shipping in accordance with 49 CFR part 173, part 178, and part 179
  • Containers must be labeled and marked in accordance with 49 CFR 172, including the UN classification number for the waste as well as labels identifying the waste’s hazard class(es)

All containers must also be marked with this announcement:

HAZARDOUS WASTE – Federal Law Prohibits Improper Disposal. If found, contact the nearest police or public safety authority or the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [Generator’s Name and Address] [Generator’s EPA Identification Number] [Manifest Tracking Number] [EPA Hazardous Waste Number(s)]

Hazardous waste shipments require a manifest prepared by LQGs or SQGs. This contains information about the generator, what waste is being shipped, and the facility that will receive the waste.

The EPA has a form manifest that generators must use, EPA form 8700-22. At least four copies must be made, but in practice it’s usual to make six to let generators, transporters, and the destination facility keep one each for their records. You can make your own manifests, but you need specific approval from the EPA Director of the Office of Resource Conservation and Recovery (ORCR).

Manifests can be paper or electronic (Wastebits provides electronic manifest management). To use electronic manifests, the generator has to make sure all the other shipping chain participants can use electronic manifests. Generators keep the top copy of the manifest, signed by the generator and transporter, and gives the remaining copies to the transporter, who keeps one copy and passes on the stack to the next transporter or the destination facility. When the disposal facility receives the waste shipment it returns a copy of the fully signed manifest to the generator, who must keep it for at least three years.

If an LQG does not receive the fully-signed final copy of the manifest within 35 days, they must contact the transporter and/or the destination facility to check on the shipment’s status (cradle-to-grave responsibility, remember). If the final manifest doesn’t arrive within 45 days, the generator must file an exemption report with the EPA. SQGs must do this if they do not receive the final copy of the manifest within 60 days.

Disposing of hazardous waste

landfill trash dump

When waste cannot be recycled, reclaimed or repurposed, generators often have several options for disposal including fuel blending, incineration, and even deep well injection. However, the most common option is land disposal, including:

  • Landfill (by far the most common choice)
  • Surface impounds
  • Land treatment facilities
  • Salt dome or salt bed formations
  • Underground mines or caves
  • Concrete vaults
  • Disposal bunkers

Since even the best land-based option can fail and leach hazardous waste into the soil and water, waste management standards under RCRA establish a responsibility for generators to determine if their waste needs to be treated before disposal.

Waste needs to be treated before disposal if it:

Treatments vary, because so do the hazards — corrosive wastes need to be chemically neutralized without causing explosions or generating toxic chemicals, while toxic wastes might require chelation or separation.

Wastes can be landfilled if:

  • All hazardous constituents in the waste have been removed or reduced to acceptable levels
  • The hazardous constituents in the residue or extract from the wastes meet required levels
  • The waste was treated using the appropriate technology

Some types of waste are prohibited from landfills altogether. These are covered in 40 CFR 268.20-.39, and include plutonium, carbamate wastes and other highly toxic or dangerous materials.

Not all wastes need to be treated before disposal. Waste can be disposed of without treatment if it is:

  • Exempt from the definition of solid waste
  • Exempt from the definition of hazardous waste
  • Pesticide or containers disposed of by a farmer on their own land, under 40 CFR 262.70
  • A ‘de minimis’ laboratory waste mixed with wastewater and treated at a wastewater treatment facility
  • Generated by a VSQG
  • A newly-identified hazardous waste for which the EPA has not yet promulgated treatment standards
  • A low-volume or ‘de minimis’ characteristic waste

Treatment standards for hazardous wastes are laid out in 40 CFR 268.40, and aim to:

  • Reduce toxicity through destruction or removal of harmful contaminants
  • Reduce leachability by immobilizing hazardous contaminants

Characteristic wastes must be treated to remove the hazardous characteristic (making them no longer ignitable, for instance) and to address any underlying source of hazard, before they can be disposed of.

Waste generator status

Your waste generator status is dependent on how much waste you generate and what type it is. You can change your waste generator status from month to month (one reason why our Insights tool lists companies’ manifests and tonnage as well as status, which can otherwise be misleading). But you can’t have more than one waste generator status at once.

If you generate either acute or non-acute hazardous waste, you can use this table to figure out your waste generator status:

RCRA waste generator status table


If you generate both types of hazardous waste, you can use this table:

acute and non-actute hazardous waste generator status table


EPA identification numbers

Each waste generator is assigned a unique EPA identification number.

Who needs an EPA number?

  • Small and large quantity facilities that generate, transport, store, treat, or recycle hazardous waste, or that offer it for transportation
  • Facilities that manage hazardous secondary materials
  • Facilities that transport, process or re-refine used oil, burn it for energy recovery or market used oil
  • Large Quantity Handlers of Universal Waste (LQHUW) who accumulate a total of 5,000 kilograms or more of universal wastes at any time
  • Certain academic entities

To get your EPA number, you’ll need to fill in EPA form 8700-12, which includes basic information about your business, address and waste types. If your state operates its own RCRA program you’ll need to contact them instead.

RCRA doesn’t have to be a tangle of red tape. But it does mean you have to know which parts of the law you need to worry about.

Smaller producers get a bit of a free pass, but any company that generates a significant amount of solid or hazardous waste needs to stitch itself into the waste transportation and disposal network as a cost of doing business.

We hope this post has helped to clear up which parts of RCRA matter to your business. If you’re looking for waste transporters, generators or disposal facilities in your area or your wheelhouse, check out Insights. It’s the most accurate, up-to-date tool in the industry for capturing leads and identifying business opportunities, as well as building the relationships you need to stay RCRA-compliant.

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