Have you heard the term “universal wastes?” I’ll admit, the first time I did I didn’t know what it meant. For me, the word “universal” really made it seem like it could be anything. Luckily for all of us, I have since learned what it really means.
The EPA has designated four specific wastes that are known as “universal wastes.” These are batteries, pesticides, mercury-containing equipment (like old thermometers), and lamp bulbs.
Both the EPA website and 40CFR detail the universal waste definitions of each of these waste types. Additionally, they provide regulations that generators of these wastes must adhere to. For reference, these are the EPA definitions of each of these waste types:
- Batteries – “Battery means a device consisting of one or more electrically connected electrochemical cells which is designed to receive, store, and deliver electric energy. An electrochemical cell is a system consisting of an anode, cathode, and an electrolyte, plus such connections (electrical and mechanical) as may be needed to allow the cell to deliver or receive electrical energy. The term battery also includes an intact, unbroken battery from which the electrolyte has been removed.” 
- Pesticides – “Pesticide means any substance or mixture of substances intended for preventing, destroying, repelling, or mitigating any pest, or intended for use as a plant regulator, defoliant, or desiccant…”  There are some exceptions which can be seen in detail on the EPA website here.
- Mercury-containing Equipment – “Mercury-containing equipment means a device or part of a device (including thermostats, but excluding batteries and lamps) that contains elemental mercury integral to its function.” 
- Lamp Bulbs – “fluorescent light bulbs and other mercury-containing bulbs…” 
As mentioned above, each of these waste types has specific federal regulations associated with it (and possible individual state regulations). The links back to the EPA site will take you to more information about the regulations set out in 40CFR.
Additionally, a good place to start out with your company is to ensure that all employees are properly trained in universal waste handling regulations and that there is a clear understanding of the different regulations. Doing this will help your company avoid potentially dangerous and costly universal waste violations.
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While the technology behind batteries is improving, and as such lessening the severity of the impact of improper disposal, it is still important to dispose of your dead batteries in the proper manner.
Firstly, for the sake of personal safety, it is important to know that you should never dispose of batteries in a fire, because they are an explosion risk, you should remove dead batteries from equipment immediately, because leaving worn-out batteries in items can lead to corrosion, and that you should never attempt to recharge a battery unless it is specifically labeled as rechargeable.
According to the Duracell website, normal alkaline batteries can, in most cases, be thrown out with your household trash; however, we recommend that you recycle them whenever possible because although the mercury has been removed from most commercial alkaline batteries for sale now, there are still toxins in them that should not be put into the environment.
If you do choose to throw your used batteries away, it is important that you do so in small numbers. Even dead batteries are often times not completely drained, because of this, throwing away large amounts of batteries together can be dangerous. A large group of mostly used batteries can work together to produce a charge that is damaging to the environment.
Lastly, due to the chemicals in battery types other than alkaline, you should make sure to recycle rechargeable, lithium, lithium ion, and zinc air batteries. There are several companies that can help you recycle your batteries and a quick internet search will provide you with plenty of options including the Heritage Lifecycle kits!
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