Discarded Equipment Containing Mercury Now Managed As Universal Waste

A final rule that classifies mercury-containing equipment as universal waste seeks to help eliminate mercury in the environment and encourage mercury recovery and improved, safe management of mercury waste. Previously, unregulated households and some small businesses were not required to manage used mercury containing equipment as a hazardous waste, resulting in some mercury waste getting thrown in the trash. Under this rule, used mercury-containing equipment will be readily collected for recycling or disposal at a properly permitted facility.

Mercury-containing equipment includes various types of instruments that are commonly used in industry, hospitals and households, such as thermometers, barometers and mercury switches. Other items already managed as universal waste include batteries, thermostats and fluorescent lamps.

This final rule, adding mercury-containing equipment to the federal list of universal wastes regulated under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) hazardous waste regulations, imposes management standards similar to those for universal waste thermostats because of similarities in the waste streams. Under the system, recordkeeping, storage and transportation requirements for generators of waste, collectors and transporters are reduced to encourage local governments, communities, and retailers to set up collection programs that will pull these wastes out of municipal trash and into the hazardous waste system. Stringent federal hazardous waste management requirements for final disposal or recycling remain unchanged.

According to a pre-publication notice, this rule affects people who generate, transport, treat, recycle or dispose of mercury containing equipment, unless those people are households or conditionally exempt small quantity generators (CESQGs). EPA estimates that about 1,900 generators handling approximately 550 tons of mercury-containing equipment annually will be affected by this rule.

The universal waste rule provides streamlined management requirements tailored to several different kinds of waste. The types of waste governed by the universal waste rule are frequently thrown in the trash by unregulated households and small businesses. Classifying an item as a universal waste provides flexibility for its proper management and can prevent the item from entering municipal trash, agency official said. Instead, it can be readily collected and disposed of at a hazardous waste facility.

For more information on the rule -- including a Federal Register notice - Pre-publication Version (signed July 27) -- go to http://www.epa.gov/epaoswer/hazwaste/recycle/electron/crt.htm.

This article originally appeared in the 08/01/2005 issue of Environmental Protection.

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