On July 31, 2013, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a Solvent-Contaminated Wipes final rule that clarifies how companies must handle disposable and reusable solvent-contaminated industrial wipes. This change is affecting many businesses, from auto repair shops to large manufacturing facilities, by stipulating requirements for handling solvent-contaminated wipes in order to avoid hazardous waste rules, which would otherwise apply. While significantly easier than the hazardous waste requirements, the new rule still imposes a high level of management in handling industrial wipes.
The industrial wipes issue arose from the draconian nature of EPA hazardous waste rules under Subtitle C of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Most industrial and commercial facilities use paper or cloth towels to clean parts, products or equipment. However, if the facility uses the wipes to apply cleaning solutions that can be characterized as hazardous waste when disposed (which accounts for many industrial solvents and other commercial cleaning products), the wipes themselves become hazardous waste. Industry and the EPA have recognized this problem for many years, but the Agency originally deferred this issue to state regulators, which led to a patchwork of requirements. In 2002, the EPA finally issued the first set of proposed rules, and the most recent final rule essentially mirrors the original proposal.
How to comply with the final rule
The final rule applies only to wipes that have been contaminated with solvents that, if disposed, would be characterized as hazardous waste. These include certain specified solvents, as well as solvents that meet the EPA’s levels for hazardous characteristics, such as ignitability, corrosivity or toxicity. Facilities can comply with the EPA’s new final rule by implementing the following:
- Store wipes for a limited time in leak-proof containers;
- Ensure that free liquid is removed from the wipes before disposal or reuse;
- Use an appropriate disposal facility; and
- Document that they followed these steps.
Further, the EPA’s final rule allows the presence of free liquids to be determined either by the user’s knowledge of the wipes or from the results of a paint filter test that measures the ability of liquid to freely flow from another material.
The rule separates solvent-contaminated wipes into two categories: reused and disposed. According to the EPA, wipes that are sent for cleaning and reuse are exempt from the definition of “solid waste” (and as a result also exempt from being classified a hazardous waste) because they are not “disposed” and still have commercial value, which encourages reuse. The EPA exempts wipes sent for disposal from being characterized as hazardous waste, because they do not present any significant risk of allowing the release of the solvents they contain, as long as they are managed and disposed of according to the regulations. Wipes sent for disposal which are contaminated with trichloroethylene (TCE) remain characterized has hazardous wastes, because the Agency deems these too risky even if managed properly.
Waste management regulations
Despite falling into these different categories, the waste management requirements for solvent-contaminated wipes are identical. Used solvent-contaminated wipes must be stored in labeled, leak-proof containers with close-fitting but not locking covers. Wipes can only be stored on-site for 180 days, and the accumulation date begins when the first wipe is placed in the container. When the wipes are removed from the containers for reuse or disposal, the facility must take the proper methods to ensure that the wipes do not contain any free liquid before they are transported for disposal or reuse. Such methods can include centrifuges, mechanical wringing, screen-bottom containers, etc.
The EPA also ties the exemptions to the means of reuse and disposal to ensure that the solvent contained in the wipes is properly managed and not released to the environment. Reusable wipes can only be sent to industrial laundries or other cleaning operations that discharge to a publicly owned treatment facility. Disposable wipes must be sent to a permitted municipal solid waste landfill, a hazardous waste landfill, or a permitted solid waste or hazardous waste incinerator.
Finally, the EPA requires facilities to document that these requirements have been met. While facilities are not required to submit reports, they must maintain documents detailing the compliance with accumulation time, efforts to ensure removal of free liquids and the facility to which the wipes were sent for reuse and disposal.
In conclusion, every facility that uses solvents on industrial wipes must examine their practices and evaluate what steps they need to add to be in compliance with the final rule requirements. This may involve a reevaluation of the types of wipes used in light of the requirements and their needs. In addition to reviewing the wipes, the simplest approach may be to use non-hazardous solvents that do not require compliance with the rules.