Whether your inventory is rotating or you simply need to dispose of unsold, returned or damaged goods, proper disposal of hazardous products–from aerosol cans and cosmetics to hair dyes and nail polish–is key. This is about more than protecting the environment and showing customers your commitment to sustainability. You want to avoid the hefty fines you might face if you toss these products in municipal trash cans. Here, experts share why proper product disposal is so important–and how retailers can ensure they’re compliant.
STATE VS. FEDERAL
When it comes to hazardous product disposal, regulations can vary from state to state, or between municipalities. “There are federal regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that set the standard to be followed by everyone in the country, for proper disposal of hazardous waste (toxics, flammables, corrosives, etc.), but state regulations can be even more stringent than EPA regulations,” explains Wade Scheel, director of governmental affairs for Stericycle, a Blaine, Minnesota-based company that disposes of hazardous waste. “California, for example, has some of the most stringent environmental protection regulations in the country, so many common products are considered hazardous waste.”
Outside of California, Scheel adds, beauty categories that the EPA classifies as hazardous have ignitable, corrosive, reactive or toxic characteristics–think fragrance, hair spray and other aerosols, nail polishes, cosmetics, hair dyes, disinfectants and products every business generates in day-to-day operation, such as batteries, bulbs and electronic waste. On the state level, even soaps and shampoos may be included. To determine whether a product is considered hazardous waste, Scheel recommends, reviewing its safety data sheet, manufacturer information, label and ingredients.
Karlie Webb, counsel for Troutman Sanders, LLP, a firm in Atlanta with a specialized team focusing on environmental law, advises retailers ask the following questions of products: Is it waste? If so, is it hazardous waste? Can you throw it away with regular trash? “In some cases, very small quantities can go in the typical trash, but it depends how much is generated. Once a retailer hits a certain threshold, they must dispose of it in a certain way, such as working with a hazardous waste hauler or dropping at a hazardous waste disposal facility,” Webb says. “But California doesn’t have this exemption; if a business generates any hazardous waste, even a small amount, they must dispose of it properly. We’ve even seen regulators and prosecutors do dumpster dives to test whether a retailer has an appropriate hazardous waste management program!”
Because of the various regulations that may be enforced depending on location, Mia Davis, director of mission for San Francisco-based clean-beauty retailer Credo, suggests contacting your municipality for the most accurate information on proper disposal. “In general, it’s best to empty out the product in the garbage, not down the drain–empty the container, aerosol, etc.–before throwing away the packaging,” Davis says. “If a facility sees nonrecyclable material mixed in with recyclable, the whole thing goes into the landfill or incinerator.” Furthermore, as a retailer, you should be able to provide customers with guidance on proper disposal; Credo offers advice on each product and package stocked.
Alternatively, Scheel recommends partnering with a company that has expertise in waste disposal to help navigate and understand your area’s regulations, then set up a system or where and how to gather and store products properly. A company can then advise you on how requently the goods should be picked up and plan a regular schedule. “Establish
a certain area to gather materials; mark and label containers where they’re accumulated to ensure they’re labeled properly as hazardous waste; and segregate by product type or characteristic. For example, if they’re flammable, keep them separate from toxics or corrosives,” Scheel says. “It’s probably a foreign concept to many retailers. The materials they use every day and sell to the public that sit on their shelves aren’t routinely thought of as being hazardous waste–but when it comes to disposal, they are.” Webb echoes this sentiment stating, “You wouldn’t realize some things are hazardous waste–remember that this group can be pretty large. Stuff we can just throw away at home, businesses can’t do that.”
FACING THE CONSEQUENCES
When retailers don’t follow the proper disposal methods, they may face serious ramifications. In fact, Webb points out that most major retailers have been sued by the state of California and entered into settlements for issues related to hazardous waste management, to the tune of tens of millions of dollars. Again, California has very stringent rules and stricter enforcement. Webb has even heard threats in the state to elevate noncompliance to a criminal offense. For now the price to pay comes in the form of civil penalties–that is, fines. There's a public relations cost too. “It's just bad PR for a business with sustainability being such a hot topic these days,” Webb adds. Scheel agrees that you must follow existing regulations so as not to damage your brand or accumulate substantial fines for noncompliance. “It’s a potentially damaging area of business practices that retailers need to focus on,” Scheel stresses. “It’s a focal point for inspectors in some states, because improper disposal is so dangerous to the environment. These materials can be toxic to aquatic and plant life and have an effect on drinking water supplies; or flammable materials in a dumpster can lead to substantial fire risk.” He adds that fines can mount to $72,718 per violation, per day–and both consumers and regulators are now looking closely at a business’s ecological impact.
Finally, inspectors can also scrutinize stores to determine how hazardous products are stored on-site. In some areas, products can’t be commingled even where they’re stored. Webb further explains that a new EPA rule, which appears specific to hazardous waste in pharmaceuticals, contains a preamble with guidance for retail products in general–any unsold items that won’t be thrown away. “Retailers can send to a reverse logistics facility, which may facilitate manufacturer credit, donation, liquidation or other types of reclamation,” Webb says. “But in the new guidance, the EPA says these items can be sent to these facilities as long as there’s a reasonable expectation of reuse or reclamation. If not, and it’s going to be destroyed, the store must manage it as waste–and, if it’s hazardous, it must be managed appropriately.”
UPDATE JULY 2019: While it is implied, our article failed to clearly state that empty aerosol cans can and should be recycled whenever possible. Empty aerosol cans are a valued recyclable material.