Library Search Contact Home
Hazardous Waste Determination

This page will help you determine if a given waste material must be classified as hazardous.  The rules are spelled out in the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), and in the large body of regulations developed by the Environmental Protection Agency to implement RCRA. 

It is important to know the correct classification of all of your facility's waste. The reason is that different sets of rules will apply to your facility depending on the total amounts of each type of hazardous waste that you generate per calendar month. Large quantity generators operate under more stringent rules than small quantity generators. The information on this page will help you determine what wastes to count toward the total.

Once you have determined the types and amounts of hazardous waste generated per calendar month at your facility, you will be able to find which rules apply to your facility by using the information provided on the page "Managing Hazardous (RCRA) Wastes" (see Generator status, EPA ID).

Please note that the regulations in your state may be different in some respects from the federal regulations.  Consult the HERC State Hazardous Waste Locator to find more information on your state's hazardous waste regulations.


Outline of the six steps

EPA recommends that you follow a six step process to determine whether a waste is hazardous.  The steps are listed below, expressed as a series of questions:

The steps are discussed in some detail in the following sections, with an emphasis on issues that would typically arise in healthcare facilities.  Because the issues can get complicated, the sections also provide links to more detailed information.


Is it "solid waste"?

The first step in determining if a material is a hazardous waste is to determine whether it is classified as a "solid waste".  The rules specify that a material cannot be a hazardous waste unless it is first determined to be a solid waste.

"Solid" for RCRA purposes doesn't mean what it means to you and me.  The regulatory usage of the term "solid" in this context is closer to the sense of the word "contained".

RCRA states:

“The term “solid waste” means any garbage, refuse, sludge from a waste treatment plant, water supply treatment plant, or air pollution control facility, and other discarded material including solid, liquid, semisolid or contained gaseous material…”  (US Code, Title 42, paragraph 6903, emphasis added)

So even gaseous material can, in some circumstances, qualify as a "solid waste".

Most materials of concern in healthcare facilities will fall under the "other discarded material" category in the RCRA definition.  So how can you recognize when material has been "discarded"?  According to EPA usage, there are three types of "discarded" material:

  1. Abandoned
  2. Recycled
  3. Inherently waste-like

Abandoned: In simplest terms, a material is considered "abandoned" if you plan to get rid of it. It clearly applies to material you have already disposed of, or that you have incinerated. It also applies to material that is being accumulated, stored and treated for eventual disposal.

It's not hard to imagine situations in which a facility and an inspector might have a difference of opinion about whether some stored material is or is not a waste.  Here are some of the questions the inspector might ask:

  1. Does the facility have a use for the material?
  2. Does the facility treat the material as if it was a valuable commodity?
  3. Does the facility plan to give it to someone else that has a use for it?

For example, suppose the inspector comes across a 55 gallon drum of solvent in the basement that is rusted, corroded and sitting in a pool of water. Even if the solvent is a valuable commodity, the facility is not ‘treating’ it as such.  They are treating it as waste. The inspector would be likely to consider it abandoned.

Recycled:  Specific types of recycled materials are considered ‘discarded’ and are therefore solid waste.

A material is normally considered to be discarded if it is:

  • used in a manner constituting disposal
  • burned for energy recovery
  • reclaimed
  • accumulated speculatively

"Speculative accumulation" refers to all those piles of material that you fully intend to recycle, but haven't quite gotten around to.  EPA will generally consider that your material is being "accumulated speculatively" if you cannot demonstrate a viable market for it, or if you have not recycled at least 75% of it in a given calendar year.

A material is also considered discarded if it is accumulated, stored or treated before recycling.

Please note that some materials that are reclaimed are not considered solid wastes under RCRA, even if they exhibit a characteristic of hazardous waste (like ignitability or corrosivity --  see below).  These include:

  • commercial chemical products
  • sludges
  • by-products

Similarly, commercial chemical products that are speculatively accumulated are also not solid wastes under RCRA.

Inherently waste-like:  Certain materials pose such a significant threat to human health that they are deemed "inherently waste-like" and are always considered solid wastes.  A standard example is any material containing dioxins -- that is in fact the only example so far.

In case of dispute:  It can sometimes happen that an inspector will consider that a particular material has been "discarded", and the facility will not agree.  In such a case, the facility will have to submit appropriate documentation to the inspector.  For example, if you are claiming that the material is a valuable commodity or has another use, you will need to show that you have a market for it, or that someone is actually taking and using it beneficially, etc.


Is it excluded?

The next step is to determine if the waste qualifies for an exclusion from RCRA regulation.  There are three main avenues:

  • solid waste exclusion
  • solid waste variance
  • hazardous waste exclusion
  • recycling

Solid waste exclusion:  There are some materials that are specifically excluded from the definition of "solid waste".  You can find a full listing in 40 CFR 261.4(a), but most cases are not likely to be relevant to healthcare facilities.  Examples include solid or dissolved material in domestic sewage, certain nuclear materials (already covered under the Atomic Energy Act), and a long list of materials from industrial and agricultural processes.

Regarding the case of domestic sewage, please be aware that this exclusion does not give you an opportunity to throw questionable waste down the drain and then claim that it's excluded under 40 CFR 261.4.  The purpose of that exclusion is to allow facilities like municipal sewage treatment plants (known as "publicly owned treatment works", or POTWs) to deal with their waste streams without having to comply with RCRA requirements that would be inappropriate for them.  Healthcare facilities must have a written agreement from their POTW to accept any waste that might qualify. 

Solid waste variance:  Another possible way to keep a particular material from being regulated under RCRA is to apply for a solid waste variance.   This option applies to:

  • Materials accumulated speculatively without sufficient amounts recycled
  • Materials reclaimed and reused within original process
  • Materials incompletely reclaimed

In order to use these variances, you will have to submit documentation demonstrating your case. If your state is authorized to administer the variance program, send the documentation to the director of your state agency.  Otherwise, send it to the EPA Regional Administrator.  You can find the rules governing solid waste variances in 40 CFR, sections 40 CFR 260.30, 40 CFR 260.31 and 40 CFR 260.33.

Hazardous waste exclusion:  Even if a material is indeed a solid waste, and even if it does not qualify for a solid waste variance, the regulations provide yet another possibility for exclusion.  The solid waste might be excluded from being considered a "hazardous waste" if it falls under any of the exemptions listed in the next subsection of the Code, 40 CFR 261.4(b).

Most of the hazardous waste exclusions listed in that subsection are not relevant to healthcare facilities, but here are three possibilities that may apply to you:

  1. Household waste (see 261.4(b)(1))
    • Waste from university dormitories, military housing, and any residents’s housing that you may have at your facility will fall under this exclusion. 
    • However, note that only wastes normally found in a household would fall under this exclusion.
    • Note: if your facility hosts a mercury thermometer swap for the community, this would be household waste and would qualify for the exclusion, as long as that waste is kept separate from other hospital waste.
  2. Used Freon (see 261.4(b), paragraphs (11) and (12))
  3. Samples of solid waste collected for the purpose of testing and treatability studies (see 261.4(d),(e), and (f))


Is it listed?

EPA Memo (11/4/2011). Status of containers that once held P-listed pharmaceuticals.

Scope of Hazardous Waste Listing for P046 - Phentermine. Feb. 17, 2012 memorandum from EPA's Materials Recovery and Waste Management Division.

The RCRA regulations include four lists of materials, designated with the letters F, K, P, and U.  (The origin of the letter designations is obscure.)  If the waste you are screening appears on the any of the lists, your task is done -- it's hazardous.

What distinguishes the lists?

The F- and K-lists cover process wastes -- wastes generated from processes carried out in your facility.  The P- and U-lists cover unused commercial chemicals that are being discarded for various reasons;  for example, they may be off-specification or expired,  they may have been spilled and cleaned up, or they may be residues left in containers.

The distinction between the two process waste lists (F and K) lies in their specificity.  The K-list deals with very specific processes that are typically carried out by one manufacturing sector only, such as organic chemical manufacturing or petroleum refining.  The F-list covers general processes that might occur in a range of sectors, such as solvent use, metal finishing processes, and wood preserving.

The unused chemicals lists (P and U) differ in their degree of risk. P-listed wastes are "acutely toxic", meaning that they can cause death or irreversible illness at low doses. U-listed wastes are "toxic": they are still regarded as hazardous, but some of the more stringent regulations that apply to the P-list do not apply to U-listed wastes. It should be noted that the drug is only listed if its sole active ingredient is listed on the P or U list.

The P- and U-lists do not apply to manufactured articles that contain a P- or U-listed waste (e.g. mercury thermometers) or to products that contain more than one active ingredient.   Such wastes might still be hazardous, but their hazard classification would fall under a different category (most likely the toxicity characteristic discussed in the next section).

K-list

Healthcare facilities do not carry out manufacturing processes, and would not typically generate any K-listed materials.

F-list

The first five F-listed categories, F001 - F005, cover a range of solvents used in a variety of applications.  A healthcare facility might generate F-listed solvents such as acetone, methanol, toluene, xylene, and methylene chloride from departments such as:

  • pathology laboratory
  • histology laboratory (xylene)
  • pharmacy
  • morgue
  • maintenance shops (degreasers)

The rest of the F-list is not likely to apply to healthcare facilities.

P-list

If you are interested in reducing the hazardous waste generated in your facility, eliminating or finding substitutes for P-listed chemicals is a good place to start.  A small quantity -- one kilogram -- of a P-listed waste can cause a facility to be classified as a "large quantity generator," and to have to comply with more stringent rules as a consequence.

The P-list includes about 239 different "acutely toxic" substances, listed under about 135 different waste codes.  (Some codes cover several substances.)  HERC has identified 15 of these that you might expect to find in a healthcare facility.  They are listed below, along with their waste codes and typical uses associated with each.  The CAS numbers for these compounds can be found in the official list at 40 CFR 216.33.

Please note that our short list is not meant to be exhaustive, and also that states may impose restrictions that apply to wastes beyond those listed in the federal list.

P-listed chemicals commonly found in healthcare facilities

Material Code Use
3-benzyl Chloride P028 pharmaceutical manufacturing
Arsenic P012 veterinary medicine, severe parasitic diseases
Arsenic Trioxide P012 chemotherapy
Chloropropionitrile P027 pharmaceutical synthesis
Cyanide Salts P030 laboratory
Epinephrine1 P042 emergency allergy kits, certain types of glaucoma, eye surgery, cardiac arrest
Nicotine P075 smoking cessation, nicotine patches, etc.
Nitroglycerin P081 coronary vasodilator in angina treatment
Phentermine3 P046 appetite suppressant
Phenylmercuric acetate P092 bactericide, pharmaceutic aid in contact lens solutions and nasal sprays
Physotigmine P204 acholinergenics (liberates/acts like acetylcholine)
Physotigmine Salicylate P188 acholinergenics (liberates/acts like acetylcholine) 
Potassium Silver Cyanide P099 bactericide
Sodium Azide2 P105 chemical preservative in hospitals, laboratories
Strychnine P108 veterinary tonic and stimulant

1 Does not include epinephrine salts.
2 Special note on sodium azide (P105):  Sodium azide, found in Enterococcus agars, is also used in detonators and other explosives.  An odorless white solid, it s a rapidly acting, potentially deadly chemical. It changes rapidly to a toxic gas with a pungent (sharp) odor when it is mixed with water or an acid, or when it comes into contact with certain metals (for example when it is poured into a drain pipe containing lead or copper). But the odor of the gas may not be sharp enough to give people sufficient warning of the danger. You should note that serious accidents have occurred in laboratory settings.  In one case, when sodium azide was poured into a drain, it exploded and the toxic gas was inhaled.
3See EPA 2/17/2012 memorandum that clarifies the scope of the hazardous waste listing.

U-list

The U-list includes about 472 distinct materials, listed under about 247 different waste codes.  (As with the P-list, the same code can refer to several different materials.)  HERC has identified 66 of them that you might expect to find in a healthcare setting, and has listed them, along with their waste codes and typical uses, below.    The CAS numbers for these compounds can be found in the official list at 40 CFR 216.33.

Our list is not meant to be exhaustive.  States may impose restrictions that apply to wastes beyond those listed in the federal list.

U-listed chemicals commonly found in healthcare facilities

Material Code Use
Acetone U002 solvent in pharmaceutical formulations
Acetyl Chloride U006 cholesterol testing
Acrylonitrile U009 pharmaceutical manufacturing
Aniline U012 pharmaceutical manufacturing
Azaserine U015 antifungal, antineoplastic
Benzidine dichloride U243 pathology laboratory
Bromoform U225 sedative, hypnotic, antitussive
Cacodylic Acid U136 dermatologic
Carbon Tetrachloride U211 anthelmintic, pharmaceutical formulations
Chloral Hydrate U034 cough syrups, sleeping pills
Chlorambucil U035 chemotherapy
Chlornaphazin U026 antineoplastic
Chloroform U044 anesthetic
Creosote U051 antiseptic, expectorant
Cresols U052 antiseptics, disinfectants
Cyclophosphamide U058 chemotherapy
Daunomycin U059 chemotherapy
o-Dichlorobenzene U070 germicides, pharmaceutical manufacturing
m-Dichlorobenzene U071 germicides, pharmaceutical manufacturing
p-Dichlorobenzene U072 germicides, pharmaceutical manufacturing
Diethylstilbestrol U089 anticancer agent, contraceptive
Ethyl Acetate U112 drug flavoring agent, topical anesthetic
Ethyl Carbamate U238 antineoplastic
Ethyl Ether U117 disinfectant, anesthetic
Ethylene Oxide U115 high level sterilant for surgical instruments
Formaldehyde U122 antiseptic, disinfectant, preservative
Formic Acid U123 diuretic, heart and muscle treatment
Hexachloroethane U131 anthelmintic (anti-worm treatment)
Hexachlorophene U132 skin treatment (pHisoHex', Septisol')
Hexachloropropene U243 dialysis, pesticide (Septisol foam?) [note ref to Septisol as hexachlorophene -no hits on "hexachloropropene Septisol"]
Lindane U129 scabicide
Melphalan U150 chemotherapy
Maleic Anyhydride U147 pharmaceutical manufacture
Mercury U151 preservatives (thimerosal), antiseptics (mercurochrome), devices (thermometers, sphygmomanometers, others)
Methanol U154 solvent in pharmaceutical manufacture
Methylpyrilene U155 antihistamine
Methylthiouracil U164 thyroid inhibitor
Mitomycin U010 chemotherapy
Naphthalene U165 antiseptic, anthelmintic
N-butyl alcohol U031 bactericide, pharmaceutical manufacture, pain control, anti-hemorrhagic
P-Chloro-m-Cresol U039 antiseptic
Paraldehyde U182 sedative, hypnotic
Phenacetin U187 analgesic, antipyretic
Phenol U188 antiseptic, anesthetic, antipruritic (relieves itching)
Reserpine U200 hypertension, insanity, snakebite, cholera, horse tranquilizer
Resorcinol U201 acne, dandruff treatment, intermediate in pharmaceutical synthesis
Saccharin U202 sugar substitute, food preparation
Selenium sulfide U205 shampoos
Streptozotocin U206 chemotherapy
Tetrachloroethylene U210 anthelmintic
Uracil mustard U237 chemotherapy
Thiram U244 antiseptic
Trichloroethylene U228 inhalation anesthetic, pharmaceutical manufacture
Warfarin < 0.3% U248 anticoagulant
2-Chloroethyl Vinyl Ether U042 anesthetics and sedatives manufacture
3-Methylchloranthrene U157 cancer research

Chemotherapy agents

Some chemicals used to treat cancer patients during chemotherapy fall on either the U or P lists.  These agents are often referred to by their brand names rather than the chemical designations appearing on the lists.  For your convenience, HERC has compiled a list of some common brand names, together with their chemical names and RCRA waste codes.  Please note that since new products may be introduced at any time, the list may not include all brand names composed of RCRA listed chemicals.


Is it characteristic?

Designating hazardous materials by listing them explicitly is fine as far as it goes, but that strategy will never go far enough.  There are many more materials used in commerce than could ever be covered in a manageable set of lists.  Furthermore, some mixtures of materials can be just as hazardous as single materials, while others can be relatively benign.  Given the astronomical number of possible combinations of materials, listing is not a practical way to account for mixtures.

To cope with these possibilities, RCRA provides another set of criteria for classifying a waste as hazardous.  Whatever its composition, a waste is considered hazardous by RCRA if it exhibits any of four characteristics:

They are discussed in greater detail below.

Note:  Even if a waste has been determined to be a listed waste, it should also be evaluated to see if it also qualifies as a characteristic waste.  Additional rules may apply to it in some cases.

Ignitability

Ignitable wastes pose hazards because they either catch fire readily themselves, or (in the case of strong oxidizers) promote fires.

A waste is considered "ignitable" under RCRA if it is:

  • a liquid with flash point under 140oF, or
  • a non-liquid, but susceptible to vigorous burning by friction, water absorption, or spontaneous chemical change, or
  • a flammable compressed gas, or
  • a strong oxidizer

(The "flash point" of a liquid is the temperature at which the vapor above a pool of liquid will catch fire under a standard set of conditions.)

Ignitable wastes commonly found in hospitals include:

  • rubbing alcohol (if the alcohol concentration exceeds 24%)
    • certain mouthwashes including Listerine' fall into this category
  • paregoric
  • methanol
  • silver nitrate
  • certain topical preparations, such as
    • Cleocin T topical solution
    • Erythromycin topical solution
    • Retin A gel
    • collodion based preparations
  • certain injectable materials

The regulations covering the ignitability characteristic can be found in Title 40 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Part 261, Section 21 (40 CFR 261.21).

Corrosivity

Corrosive wastes include liquids with pH less than 2 or greater than 12.5, or that corrode steel faster than a quarter-inch per year at 55oC.

Examples of corrosive wastes occurring in hospitals include concentrated solutions of acetic acid or sodium hydroxide (lye).

The regulations covering the corrosivity characteristic can be found in Title 40 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Part 261, Section 22 (40 CFR 261.22).

Reactivity

Reactive wastes include:

  • materials that generate toxic gases in contact with water
  • wastes that contain cyanide or sulfide and can release toxic gases in contact with strong acids or bases
  • explosive materials, or materials that are explosive when heated

Reactive wastes that may be found in hospitals include:

  • lithium-sulfur batteries
  • dry picric acid
    • explosive when dry -- should be handled with extreme care
    • may be found in histology laboratories
    • a component of the tissue preservative Bouin's Solution
  • nitroglycerin formulations (see the HERC Pharmaceuticals page for more information on nitroglycerin)
  • ethylene oxide

Toxicity

The RCRA sense of toxicity is somewhat indirect.  The concern is not so much with the toxic properties of the wastes themselves as with the extent to which toxic materials can leach out of the wastes if they are exposed to water in the environment.

To measure this potential, the rules specify a test called the Toxic Characteristic Leaching Procedure, or TCLP (EPA Method 1311).  The test is designed to give some indication of how readily various materials would tend to leach into groundwater if the waste were placed in a landfill.  One form of the test involves subjecting the waste to a mild acetic acid solution (about the strength of household vinegar) at room temperature for 18 hours.  The solution is then tested for the presence of any of the so-called "D-listed" chemicals.  For each of the chemicals, the RCRA rules specify a threshold level (concentration).  If any of the chemicals is present in the solution at a concentration above its threshold level, the waste is considered a toxic hazardous waste.

This link will take you to the most recent available version of the complete D-list.

Examples of hospital wastes that are considered by RCRA to have the toxicity characteristic include:

  • mercury
  • mercury compounds, such as thimerosal, used as a preservative in vaccines
  • phenylmercuric acetate
  • arsenic compounds
  • barium compounds
  • certain compounds containing other metals, including
    • chromium
    • cadmium
    • selenium
    • silver
  • chloroform
  • m-cresol
  • Lindane


Is it a mixture?

If a hazardous waste and a non-hazardous waste are mixed, the resulting mixture may inherit the hazardous classification.  The rules are different for listed and characteristic wastes.

  • Mixing in any amount of a listed waste will cause the mixture to be considered hazardous.
  • Mixing in a characteristic waste will cause the mixture to become hazardous only if the mixture itself exhibits the characteristic.

There are various exceptions and exemptions -- see, for example, the RCRA Orientation Manual listed in the More Resources section for additional information and references.


Is it derived from a hazardous waste?

Similar rules apply to wastes that are derived from listed or characteristic hazardous wastes as residues from waste treatment processes.  Since most healthcare facilities are not hazardous waste Treatment, Storage, and Disposal (TSD) sites (and thus should be sending all hazardous wastes to a licensed TSD facility), this consideration is unlikely to apply to them.


More resources

Related EPA Policy Memos

  • Scope of Hazardous Waste Listing for P046 - Phentermine. Feb. 17, 2012 memorandum from EPA's Materials Recovery and Waste Management Division.
  • Regulatory Status of Antineoplastic Drug Wastes. This letter is in response to a request for clarification of the status of certain antineoplastic drug wastes. The request was for an interpretation of 40 CFR 261.33, with respect to excess antineoplastic drug formulations which are not needed and thus are discarded. (4/25/1988).
  • Containers Used To Hold Listed Chemotherapy Drugs. This letter responds to a question regarding the regulatory status of chemotherapy drugs and related supplies; in particular, the question whether the weight of the "empty" vial should be included in determining the amount of drug residues to be disposed. (6/16/1987)
  • Returned Pharmaceutical Products. This responds to a letter requesting a determination regarding the regulatory status of pharmaceutical products that are returned by the dispensers of these products to the manufacturers, wholesalers, or to a third-party service company that will facilitate the processing, crediting, and, if needed, appropriate disposal of the returned products. (5/16/1991)
  • Definition of Solid Waste and Reclamation. A distributor of a U-listed commercial chemical product finds that the product is no longer saleable. (8/2005)
  • Returned Pharmaceutical Products.' This responds to a letter requesting a determination regarding the regulatory status of pharmaceutical products that are returned by the dispensers of these products to the manufacturers, wholesalers, or to a third-party service company that will facilitate the processing, crediting, and, if needed, appropriate disposal of the returned products. 5/16/1991
  • MERCURY THERMOMETERS RECLAIMED OFF SPEC AND BROKEN.' This is in response to a letter dated March concerning the regulatory status of off-spec and broken mercury thermometers that are reclaimed under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act hazardous waste rules. 4/2/1986.
  • WASTE LISTINGS FOR COMMERCIAL CHEMICAL PRODUCTS MERCURY.' This letter is in response to a telephone conversation and letter, both dealing with waste listings for commercial chemical products (mercury thermometers). (11/2/1988)
  • P AND U LISTED WASTES. This letter is in response to a letter, in which someone asked for clarification of Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) regulations as they pertain to "U" and "P" listed wastes. (4/21/1989)

The definition of "solid waste" appearing above can be found in the US Code.  A different definition appears in the Code of Federal Regulations 40 CFR 261.2.   The US Code contains the text of laws passed by Congress, while the Code of Federal Regulations contains the text of rules written by executive agencies. The former is the definition most frequently cited by EPA.

EPA has prepared some useful introductory guidance material, but the services of an external laboratory or expert may be advisable in some cases.

RCRA Orientation Manual http://www.epa.gov/osw/inforesources/pubs/orientat/

Library | Search | Sitemap | Contact Us | Disclaimer |