Safer Stores Toolkit: What grocery stores need to know about hazardous waste

This guide will help you understand which federal regulations apply to your business, and what you need to do about it.

What isn’t sold or used up SHOULD NOT go in the dumpster!

Why does it matter?

Store managers should precautions to minimize the damaging effects of hazardous waste. Over the past decade, a lack of knowledge has resulted in big fines for large chains. In 2013, Wal-Mart Stores was fined $82 million for illegally throwing away pesticides that customers returned to stores. In the first six months of 2017, California engaged in 18 enforcement actions, issuing more than $100,000 in fines. Although smaller grocery and retail stores are not apt to be vigorously fined, the same rules do apply.


Does it apply to you?

Most grocery retailers generate at least a very small amount of hazardous waste. Products that can’t be sold because they are damaged, expired, or returned by a customer may not necessarily belong in the dumpster, especially if they pose a significant health or safety risk. There are some steps you can take to safely comply with the law and keep your workers and community safe.


What is hazardous waste?

Hazardous waste is “flammable, corrosive, reactive or toxic.” Examples are pesticides, drain cleaner, auto products, lighter fluid, grout cleaner, rust remover, household cleaners, and beauty products that turn into hazardous waste when they cannot be sold. Other things to look out for are commercial cleaners for floors, food preparation areas, and restrooms, and also products to maintain walkways and grounds. Some amount of cleaners is inevitably unused and must be disposed of properly.


What do you do with hazardous waste?

Many states have slightly different hazardous waste definitions and requirements, so it’s a good idea to check with your state. But, in general:


If you generate less than 220 pounds per month per store (which is likely for a small grocery store), then you are considered a Very Small Quantity Generator (VSQG). You must identify and properly store hazardous waste (no more than 2,200 pounds at a time), and dispose of hazardous waste at an appropriate facility yourself or by using a permitted and licensed service provider. Often service providers will have turn-key services, so it can be as easy as making a few calls and selecting the right service for you.


If you generate between 220 and 2,200 pounds per month per location, then you are considered a Small Quantity Generator (SQG). You must register with EPA, train employees to identify and properly store hazardous waste (no more than 13,200 pounds at a time), dispose of hazardous waste using a permitted and licensed service provider every 180 days, and keep disposal records – called manifests. Again, there are businesses that will help you get a program in place.


If you generate more than 2,200 pounds per month per location, then you are considered a Large Quantity Generator (LQG). You must register with EPA, identify and properly store hazardous waste, dispose of hazardous waste using a permitted and licensed service provider every 90 days, and keep manifests.


What is universal waste?

In addition to hazardous waste, another type of waste you need to keep track of is “universal waste.” In general, universal waste may be recyclable. Examples include batteries, fluorescent tubes and bulbs, certain pesticides, and mercury-containing equipment (like thermostats and lamps). Aerosol cans are expected to be classified as universal waste in 2019. 


What do you do with universal waste?

This separate classification is meant to make things easier – you can accumulate more at a time and you often don’t have to use a licensed hazardous waste transporter to send materials to recycling facilities. To keep things easy, chances are you can manage your universal waste the same way you manage your hazardous waste, which is explained below. But… each state has its own rules. You can find out more here.


Let’s Get Started!


___ (1) Visit your state agency’s webpage to find out what kind of generator you are (VSQG, SQG or LQG), whether there are special requirements, and to determine the status of universal waste in your state.


___ (2) Determine if you have registration requirements with EPA and your state, and follow that procedure.


___ (3) Start a storage and disposal program. Either set-up your own (if you are a VSQG) or hire a contractor that will offer turn-key service.

a. If you do it yourself, make sure you are fully aware of the legal requirements. Most state agencies will provide contact information directly on their website and offer help for small businesses. Also, you might be able to use existing facilities that are primarily for residential waste, for a fee, to save money.

b. If you hire a turn-key service, type “hazardous waste disposal services in [your location]” into a search engine, make a couple of phone calls, and select the service provider you prefer.


___ (4) Train your employees: provide on-boarding training, refresher classes, and posters to explain the process.


Some fine print…There are new federal rules currently being put in place for businesses that operate more than one site, allowing them to send all their hazardous and universal waste to a central location where it is then properly managed. You can learn more by speaking with representatives at your state agency.