Many retail consumer products, including products in the cleaning and health and beauty categories, may need to be handled as hazardous waste when returned, expired, recalled, or damaged. Improper disposal of hazardous products, such as pouring them down the drain, onto the ground, into storm drains, or putting them into the trash, can be potentially dangerous and against the law. State laws can differ from federal requirements, so it is important to always check state laws.
Before disposing of products or shipping them to a return center, it is critical to determine which items might be considered hazardous waste. This is important for cleaning or chemical products, as well as for many products from the health and beauty aisle. Federal and state hazardous waste regulations outline a process for hazardous waste determination and have strict rules for handling hazardous waste. The CRC Hazardous Waste page provides more detail on these requirements.
The consequences of improper waste determination can be severe from environmental, health, and safety, as well as legal, perspectives. If in doubt, it may be prudent to assume an item is hazardous waste. Sometimes the product labeling gives an indication that a product may be hazardous. For example, there is a significant chance that cleaning products and chemicals with package labeling that contains signal words like "Danger," "Poison," "Toxic," "Corrosive," or "Flammable" may be hazardous wastes (although this will not always be the case). Words such as "Warning" or "Caution" indicate the product poses some degree of risk and therefore might also be a hazardous waste. Retailers should evaluate these products more closely or may wish to simply assume they will be hazardous wastes when disposed.
The following types of household cleaners are in many instances classified as hazardous wastes when disposed:
Other consumer products that frequently must be managed as hazardous wastes include:
Health and beauty products that may be considered hazardous waste include:
This is not a comprehensive list and individual products must be evaluated separately. Some states have more stringent rules for what is considered a hazardous waste. Retailers often work with consultants or waste haulers to ensure that they correctly identify all products that could be hazardous wastes.
The EPA defines Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products ("PPCPs") as "any product[s] used by individuals for personal health or cosmetic reasons … including … fragrances, lotions, and cosmetics." This category includes prescription and over the counter drugs, which are covered in the CRC Pharmacy page. Non-pharmaceutical PPCPs (i.e., personal care products) are addressed here.
The disposal of personal care products is regulated by multiple agencies, including: EPA, state environmental agencies, local governments, and potentially local Publicly Owned Treatment Works (POTWs).
Both hazardous and non-hazardous personal care products generally should not be disposed of down sinks or drains as wastewater treatment plants may not be equipped to remove these chemicals from wastewater and they are potentially harmful to the environment. Under the Clean Water Act, local POTWs have the authority to set local limits for pollutants that are allowed in their system, and any material poured down a drain must comply with these limits. The CRC Water Page has more information on disposal in wastewater.
VOC Emission Standards – The EPA, and some state and local jurisdictions, have limits on the amount of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) contained in certain products sold at retail stores. These standards may apply to cleaning products and chemicals (such as disinfectants, floor polish, paint thinner, and glass cleaner) and beauty products (such as hair spray, nail polish remover, and shaving cream).
State Toxic Chemical Management – Under California's Proposition 65, or the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act, companies who have products that may expose consumers to a chemical on the Prop 65 list must provide a warning to consumers. Other states may have similar regulations.
The CRC Product Compliance and Toxics page has more information on these environmental standards.
The Hazardous Materials Regulations (HMR) are rules issued by the Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) for shipping products that are considered hazardous materials. These materials include, but are not limited to, items that are explosive, flammable, radioactive, corrosive, water reactive, gaseous, or poisonous (plus a miscellaneous category). The regulations include a table of hazardous materials. The regulations define requirements for classification, packaging, hazard communication, security, incident reporting, handling, and transportation. All employees who are involved in the transport of hazardous materials (including loading and unloading) must have training every three years.
Some "hazardous material" consumer products packaged for retail sales may be subject to significantly reduced requirements, for example, under the rules for ORM-D "consumer commodities" (no longer applicable to air shipments, and applicable only through December 31, 2020 for ground shipments) or Limited Quantities. Examples of products that may be hazardous materials and eligible for such reduced requirements include rubbing alcohol, aftershave lotion, hair spray, paints, aerosols, cleaners, and perfumes. It is a common misunderstanding that Limited Quantity/ORM-D materials are fully exempt from HMR requirements. They are not and must still comply with certain requirements, such as general requirements for packaging to prevent breakage and leaking of liquids, and certain marking requirements (such as a marking on the outer packaging to indicate the presence of ORM-D or Limited Quantities). ORM-D or Limited Quantity markings should not be automatically placed on all small boxes or totes used to ship consumer products, because such markings are certifications that hazardous materials are in the container and that the relevant requirements have been met.
There are additional requirements for each mode of transport (e.g., ground, air, rail, and water), with regulations on air shipments generally being the strictest.
Retail facilities may be able to reduce compliance, disposal costs, and regulatory risk by promoting or offering fewer products that have the potential to become hazardous wastes. In some cases, very similar products can have different regulatory liabilities and costs with one product having the potential to be considered a hazardous waste while the other is not.
There is a push to replace cleaning products and chemicals with less hazardous versions. The EPA's Safer Choice program (formerly Design for the Environment) identifies products that may be less hazardous. Standards addressing other environmental or related attributes include Green Seal, USDA Organic, and USDA Biopreferred products. Selling products that are less hazardous or have other favorable environmental or related attributes can also enhance a company's brand.
EPA National Pilot Study of Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products in Fish Tissue
State of Minnesota Pollution Control Agency – Reverse Distribution of General Merchandise