Retail Universal Waste Compliance Doesn’t Need to Be Difficult
By: Scott Thibodeau

The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) and compliance with it, remains a regulatory challenge for the retail industry. Many retailers are forced to become experts in waste characterization to ensure compliance with environmental regulations, something that has become difficult for resource strapped retailers. While RCRA was originally developed to prevent the improper disposal of hazardous waste, the regulations were typically suited for industrial, manufacturing and chemical-related industries.

Thankfully, managing certain hazardous wastes generated by retailers doesn’t need to be difficult. The Environmental Protection Agency established the Universal Waste Rule in 1995. EPA's universal waste regulations streamline hazardous waste management standards for federally designated "universal wastes," which include batteries, mercury-containing equipment and fluorescent lamps.

Millions of fluorescent lamps are sold in the United States each year and most are improperly discarded. According to the Association of Lamp and Mercury Recyclers (ALMR), up to 70% of all lamps disposed in the United States are not recycled. This poses a risk to both the environment and retailers that are not properly recycling their mercury-containing fluorescent lamps. From an environmental perspective, although the amount of mercury in a single fluorescent lamp is small (ranging less than 2 milligrams to 15 milligrams for common fluorescent lamps), collectively the large numbers of fluorescent lamps can contribute significantly to the amount of mercury that is released into the environment if fluorescent lamps are not recycled. When mercury is released to the environment, it can contaminate waterways where it ends up in fish that are then consumed by humans and other animals.

The universal waste regulations govern the collection and management of these widely generated wastes and eases the regulatory burden on retail stores, thus facilitating environmentally sound collection and proper recycling or treatment.

Many of today’s retailers have or are currently retrofitting or re-lamping their stores to more energy efficient lighting systems such as T8 and T5 linear fluorescents, light emitting diode (LED) as well as installing battery operated point of purchase displays. Still, others are implementing collection and return programs for compact fluorescents and batteries brought back to their stores by their customers. At the end of these projects, many retailers are left with hazardous mercury containing fluorescent lamps, PCB or non-PCB lamp ballast and mixed batteries that may contain corrosive materials such potassium hydroxide (lye) or sulfuric acid; or reactive metals such as lithium; or toxic metals such as mercury, lead, cadmium and nickel.

In addition to the waste, retailers are strapped to the logistical nightmare of having the waste picked up in a timely manner and managed in accordance with disposal regulations to ensure environmental compliance.

While most retailers excel at reverse logistics to consolidate goods and minimize transportation costs, this is best used and designed to consolidate products intended for resale, vendor returns or charitable donations. The current regulatory framework does not allow for retailers to utilize reverse logistics to consolidate waste in many cases, leaving a need for a regional environmental service provider to service local stores.

While small single store retailers can benefit from working with a local environmental service provider, multi-store retailers can find it challenging to work with multiple regional environmental services providers, specifically as it relates to program consistency between stores, compliant labeling and packaging, on-time service, pricing and down-stream auditing of processing facilities. Having a single point of access for regulatory compliance documentation and reporting is also virtually impossible when working with multiple environmental service providers.

For retailers, the solution really comes down to addressing a few high level items. First make the recycling program easy and reproducible. Whether the retailer has one location or hundreds across the country, the program has to work the same way from facility to facility and be easily implementable. Training is required and needs to be easily accessible as employees turnover and are required to manage the process.

Second, the recycling program needs to be consistent whether the retailer is managing one location or multiple locations. It is imperative that the process is the same, the packaging is the same, the labeling is the same and the retailer has a single point of contact for questions or concerns.

Third, the recycling program has to be cost-effective. While the cost of compliance cannot be overlooked, given the recent multi-million dollar fines imposed on some retailers, the programs offered by environmental service providers need to be flexible and based on retailer need instead of fitting a retailer into a “one size fits all” service offering.

Fourth, the recycling program has to be managed by a reputable environmental service provider with adequate financial stability, insurance and indemnification programs that protect retailer’s long-term liability.

Last, the recycling program needs to be documentable. Retailers love sustainability and telling the story. Managers should have access to environmental reporting and documentation at their fingertips with a few clicks of a mouse. 

While the industry is constantly evolving and making strides toward reducing the amount of hazardous materials like mercury in fluorescent lamps, retailers should weigh their options closely to choose a recycling program that reduces environmental liability, limits costs and minimizes complexities.

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