RCRA Empty

Last updated on January 21, 2021

A question many facilities face once they have utilized all of a hazardous material or pharmaceutical is whether the seemingly empty container is trash or hazardous waste?  While the answer can vary somewhat by state, here are some guidelines to review to make your determination.

What Is the Definition of RCRA Empty?

On a federal level, a RCRA empty container is not subject to the EPA disposal regulations (Subtitle C) and can be disposed of through the solid waste stream (regular trash). The EPA defines “Empty” for most hazardous waste containers as follows (see 40 CFR §261.7(b)):

All wastes have been removed that can be removed using the common practices (pouring, pumping, etc.) and no more than 3% by weight of the total capacity of the container remains in the container.

There are two exceptions to the above definition:

  1. Compressed gas is empty when the container is no longer under pressure. This can be difficult to determine when the pressure equals ambient pressure.
  2. Acute hazardous waste (P-listed) must be triple rinsed with a chemically applicable solvent in order to be considered empty (or the container with the P-listed residue must be managed as a HW). The solvent keeps the code following the rinse – and this rinsate accumulated and managed as a HW.

After all medications have been dispensed, stock bottles that contained a P-listed pharmaceutical (e.g., warfarin/coumadin, physostigmine, or nicotine) are still considered hazardous waste, except in states that have adopted the “new pharmaceutical rule.”

The new rule, Management Standards for Hazardous Waste Pharmaceuticals and Amendment to the P075 Listing for Nicotine, is published in Federal Regulations 40 CFR 266 Subpart P and provides specific definitions for empty pharmaceutical containers. As the rule is adopted by each state, hazardous waste quantities will reduce in healthcare facilities and pharmacies.

Here is how the rule (see 40 CFR §266.507) breaks down the pharmaceutical definition of empty::

  • Stock bottles, dispensing bottles, vials, blister packs, or ampules are considered empty and the residues are not regulated as hazardous waste once the pharmaceuticals have been removed from the stock bottle, dispensing bottle, vial, ampule, or the unit-dose container using the common practices for that type of container.
  • Syringes are considered empty, and the residues are not regulated as hazardous waste after the contents have been removed by fully depressing the plunger of the syringe.
  • Intravenous (IV) bags are considered empty, and the residues are not regulated as hazardous waste provided the pharmaceuticals in the IV bag have been fully administered to a patient.

If a syringe or IV bag is not fully administered, it is not empty and needs to be managed and disposed of as hazardous waste following all applicable federal, state, and local waste requirements.

If a hazardous waste pharmaceutical container does not meet one of the definitions for “empty” – §261.7 or §266.507– then it is still a hazardous waste. A few examples for when this may occur are residues in inhalers, nebulizers, or tubes of ointments, gels, or creams.

State Regulations on RCRA Empty Containers May Vary

Always confirm in which state the waste is being generated. Does the state have additional contingencies to the definition of “empty” hazardous waste containers (as states can have regulations more stringent than the federal regulations)?  If the waste is in containers that last held pharmaceuticals, is 266 Subpart P adopted in that state? These answers will help confirm the best disposal options available to the customer.

Sharps Compliance can assist you with any of your hazardous waste questions, including determining if your empty containers are RCRA empty.

Chandra Lippitt has a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemistry from Colorado School of Mines. She is certified in RCRA and DOT as well as 40 Hour HAZWOPER certified. Chandra has been in the hazardous waste industry since 2008 and has managed industrial, healthcare, retail, and governmental clients, both large and small.

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