Are Your Wipes Clean?
EPA Adopts Industrial Wipes Standard

By Sharon O. ("Sheri") Jacobs

On July 31, 2013, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a final rule to clarify how companies handle disposable and reusable solvent contaminated industrial wipes. This change will affect many businesses, from auto repair shops to large manufacturing facilities, by identifying requirements for handling solvent contaminated wipes in order to avoid hazardous waste rules, which would otherwise apply. While significantly easier than the hazardous waste requirements, the rules still impose a high level of management in handling industrial wipes an another rule facilities must take into consideration in when managing waste.

The industrial wipes rule modifies the hazardous waste management regulations for solvent-contaminated wipes under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). Specifically, this rule revises the definition of solid waste to conditionally exclude solvent-contaminated wipes that are cleaned and reused and revises the definition of hazardous waste to conditionally exclude disposable solvent-contaminated wipes. If a facility uses wipes applied with cleaning solutions that can be characterized as hazardous waste when disposed (which accounts for many industrial solvents and other commercial products), the wipes themselves become hazardous wastes.

Industry and EPA have recognized this problem for many years, but EPA originally deferred this to state regulators, leading to a patchwork of requirements. EPA finally issued proposed rules in 2002; these final rules generally mirror the original proposal. The rules only apply to wipes contaminated with solvents that would be characterized as hazardous wastes if disposed. These include certain specific listed solvents as well as solvents that meet EPA’s test for hazardous characteristics such as ignitability, corrosivity or toxicity.

The rules separate solvent-contaminated wipes into two categories: reused and disposed. EPA exempts wipes sent for cleaning and reuse from the definition of “solid waste” (and as a result from being a hazardous waste) because they are not “disposed” and have commercial value that encourages reuse. EPA excludes wipes sent for disposal from the definition of hazardous waste because they present no significant risk of allowing a release of the solvents they contain so long as they are managed and disposed according to the regulations. EPA also ties the exemptions to the means of reuse and disposal to ensure that the solvent contained in the wipes is properly managed and not released to the environment.  The only exceptions to the disposable wipes rule are wipes contaminated with trichloroethylene (TCE), which EPA deems too risky even if managed consistent with the requirements.

EPA requires facilities to document that these requirements are being met. While facilities are not required to submit reports, they must maintain documents showing compliance with accumulation time, efforts to ensure removal of free product and the facility to which the wipes were sent for reuse and disposal.

The rules stretch EPA’s reach further and require compliance from facilities that are not accustomed to EPA regulation. As a result, every facility that uses wipes and solvents must examine their practices or use solvents that would not require compliance with the new rules.