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Retail Orgs Give EPA Waste Management Proposals Mixed Reviews

A group comprising the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA), the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), the National Association of Chain Drug Stores (NACDS), the National Grocers Association (NGA) and the National Retail Federation (NRF), known collectively as the Retail Associations, has submitted comments in favor of proposals by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to update waste management regulations. The proposed regulations may affect the handling of unsold consumer products and pharmaceuticals by retailers.

EPA’s Hazardous Waste Generator Improvements and Management Standards for Hazardous Waste Pharmaceuticals proposals aim to address compliance challenges arising from the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). The legislation usually applies to large-scale manufacturing plants generating more significant amounts of hazardous wastes, but EPA also applies RCRA to the tiny percentage of unsold consumer products that may be recycled, reused or otherwise discarded from a retail store. Almost all of these products are sold to customers and are either consumed or disposed of in their households, without further regulation.

Among other things, the proposed regulations would allow a waste generator to avoid the increased burdens of a higher-generator status when generating large quantities of hazardous waste unexpectedly and infrequently as a result of broken or damaged customer returns, theft or damage within a store, public dumping in trash receptacles, or recalls of unusable products; allow very small-quantity generators to consolidate hazardous wastes from various locations at a large-quantity generator site such as a distribution center, thereby eliminating the disproportionate regulatory burdens of higher-generator status at store level; and relax the requirements for managing empty pharmaceutical containers. EPA is also soliciting comment on potential amendments to the heightened “acute” hazardous waste classification for smoking cessation products such as low-concentration nicotine patches, gums and lozenges, which subject retailers to additional in-store requirements.

Additional information on the rules is available on EPA’s website.

“This is an important step forward. and the Retail Associations welcome the opportunity to respond to these long-awaited proposals,” noted Sue Pifer, VP of compliance at Arlington, Va.-based RILA, before continuing: “Although portions of the proposals may offer some relief, the suggested frameworks fall short of easing the burden on retailers who want to manage unsold products in a more sustainable fashion, rather than discarding potentially useful or recyclable items. The retail associations again emphasize in their comments that most unsold consumer products and pharmaceuticals are not ‘wastes’, due to the fact that many are suitable for re-shelving, donation, recycling, liquidation or shipment back to vendors for credit. We look forward to continuing our work with the EPA to further the agency’s understanding of the unique challenges faced by the retail sector in reverse distribution.”

A long-standing business practice, reverse distribution involves the removal and consolidation of consumer products and pharmaceuticals that aren’t sold in retail stores, which the trade organizations maintain is “friendly to the environment and good for consumers.” The practice pre-dates the application of RCRA to retailers’ reverse-distribution operations.

In 2014, a RILA-led coalition of retailers explained compliance issues regarding RCRA to EPA, and some of the problems raised by the coalition were incorporated into the proposed rules, which the agency released in September 2015.

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