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InstituteHazardous WasteWaste/HazWasteWasteIn Depth Sub Topics (Level 4)Empty ContainersWasteWaste ManagementEnvironmentalEnglishAnalysisFocus AreaUSA
What are RCRA empty containers?
- If a facility has a container that meets the definition of “empty” under RCRA then the container and any residue in it is no longer regulated as a hazardous waste.
- A recurring issue within the container and empty container regulations is the puncturing or venting of aerosol cans.
If a facility has a container that meets the regulatory definition of “empty” under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) then the container and any residue in it is no longer regulated as a hazardous waste. A facility can then reuse the container or arrange to have it disposed of or recycled.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) regulation concerning “RCRA empty” containers is found at 261.7. According to EPA, a container or inner liner is empty if:
- All wastes have been removed that can be removed using the practices commonly employed to remove materials from that type of container (e.g., pouring, pumping, aspirating); and
- No more than 2.5 centimeters (one inch) of residue remain on the bottom of the container or inner liner; or
- No more than three percent by weight of the total capacity of the container remains in the container or inner liner if the container is less than or equal to 119 gallons in size; or
- No more than 0.3 percent by weight of the total capacity of the container remains in the container or inner liner if the container is greater than 119 gallons in size.
A container that has held a hazardous waste that is a compressed gas is empty when the pressure in the container approaches atmospheric.
A container or an inner liner removed from a container that has held an acute hazardous waste is empty if:
- It has been triple rinsed using a solvent capable of removing the commercial chemical product or manufacturing chemical intermediate; or
- It has been cleaned by another method that has been shown in the scientific literature, or by tests conducted by the generator, to achieve equivalent removal; or
- The inner liner that prevented contact of the commercial chemical product or manufacturing chemical intermediate with the container has been removed.
A note on aerosol cans
A recurring issue within the container and empty container regulations is the puncturing or venting of aerosol cans. The issue stems partly from applying the empty container regulations to aerosol cans and partly from the issue of whether the can itself is considered to be part of the waste.
In general, aerosol cans are capable of holding either compressed gas or liquid. If the can is sent for scrap metal recycling, the can and its contents are exempt from regulation as scrap metal per 261.6(a)(3)(iii).
The act of emptying the can may be an exempt recycling activity per 261.6(c), and any residues from emptying the can would be regulated if they are listed or exhibit a characteristic of hazardous waste.
If the can is sent for disposal, both the contents of the can and the can itself are subject to regulation. To dispose of the aerosol can as nonhazardous, the can must be RCRA empty according to 261.7 and the can itself must not qualify as a hazardous waste.
If the aerosol can is holding a compressed gas, EPA says it is unclear whether the act of venting to render the can empty would constitute treatment. Before venting an aerosol can, be sure to check with the EPA regional office or with the state.
In February 2020, non-empty aerosol cans became a federally recognized universal waste. However, states do not have to allow non-empty aerosol cans to be managed as universal waste. Even in states that do manage non-empty aerosol cans, a facility may choose to empty the cans and recycle the containers.
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