In a move that has made industry insiders "ecstatic," EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy signed a final rule on July 22, 2013 which will exclude certain solvent-contaminated industrial rags or wipes from regulation under the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. The new rule excludes solvent-contaminated reusable wipes from regulation as solid waste (40 CFR 261.4(a)), and excludes solvent-contaminated disposable wipes from regulation as hazardous waste (40 CFR 261.4(b)(18)) under RCRA.
EPA estimates that the new exclusions will save between $21.7 and $27.8 million per year, and will affect nearly 95,000 facilities in 13 different economic subsectors, including the chemical and allied product manufacturing facilities, solid waste management facilities and industrial laundries. But the more important effect, in our view, is that it removes one of the irrationalities of the RCRA program, namely, tagging commonly used materials as a "waste" when they're on their way to being cleaned and recycled.
The new rule also marks the end of a more than thirty year process, which started in the 1980s soon after the EPA promulgated its first RCRA hazardous waste regulations. After EPA promulgated the original rule on rags and wipes, the Manufacturers of certain disposable wipes immediately complained that the regulations were too strict. They argued that their wipes only made up 1% of a user's waste stream, and absorbed a very small amount of solvent, thus posing a minimal potential threat to human health and the environment. In 1985, the manufacturer submitted the first of long series of rulemaking petitions to EPA.
In response to the criticism from industry, EPA developed a policy in the 1990s that left interpretation of its regulations on wipes to the states authorized by EPA to administer their own hazardous waste programs, or to the EPA Region level, wherever a state lacked authorization. Finding its policy was leading to different outcomes in the various states and EPA regions, EPA announced in 2003 the proposed rule excluding certain wipes contaminated with solvents from RCRA regulation entirely. After its analysis of the risks associated with solvent-contaminated wipes was questioned, EPA issued a revised risk analysis in 2009.
While the new rule does exclude certain solvent-contaminated wipes from RCRA, it is not a blanket prohibition. Wipes contaminated with certain hazardous wastes listed in the RCRA statute do not fall within the new exclusion, nor do wipes contaminated with substances that exhibit certain any of the characteristics of hazardous wastes other than ignitability - namely, toxicity, corrosivity, or reactivity.
How industry can easily, in a practical way, distinguish between wipes showing one or another of the characteristics - as that usually requires actual testing - is unclear.
For more information on the new EPA rules, including storage, labeling, and recordkeeping requirements, refer to EPA's Solvent-Contaminated Wipes Final Rule Summary Chart, or to EPA's rulemaking page.