Legal Alert: U.S. EPA Finalizes Regulatory Exclusion for Solvent Contaminated Wipes and Shop Towels

In an action designed to spare thousands of businesses from the high costs of hazardous waste disposal, U.S. EPA recently changed its rules to exclude solvent-contaminated wipes from hazardous waste regulation, provided the wipes are cleaned or disposed of properly.  After years of extensive study, EPA concluded that excluding most solvent-contaminated  wipes from strict hazardous waste regulatory controls would not subject either human health or the environment to elevated risks.  These federal rule changes will become effective in six months.

Wipes and shop towels used with cleaning solvents are commonly used in various industrial and commercial settings, including auto repair, printing, publishing, business services, and in the manufacture of cars, electronics, computers, plastics, rubber, fabricated metal products, industrial machinery, furniture, fixtures, and chemicals.  Generally, wipes (rags, towels, pads, swabs) fall into two categories; they are either ‘reusable’ wipes or ‘disposable’ wipes.  Reusable wipes are exempt from the definition of ‘solid waste’ under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) and are typically sent to dry cleaners and laundries to be cleaned prior to reuse.  Disposable wipes are regulated as ‘hazardous wastes’ and must be sent to permitted hazardous waste incinerators or disposal facilities for disposal.

Rule Changes
Under the modified rule, 40 CFR 261.4, reusable solvent-contaminated wipes are now conditionally excluded from regulation as solid wastes and thus are not hazardous wastes. Most disposable solvent-contaminated wipes are now conditionally excluded from regulation as hazardous wastes under RCRA and may be disposed of as solid wastes.  The exclusion applies to wipes used with solvents that are F, P, and U listed hazardous wastes, wastes that are characteristic for ignitability, or wastes that exhibit a characteristic resulting from a solvent listed in 40 CFR 261.  Disposable wipes used in conjunction with trichloroethylene remain regulated as hazardous wastes.

As a practical matter, the rule changes mean that hazardous waste management costs will be reduced for thousands of businesses.  Hazardous waste manifests will no longer need to be completed and maintained for offsite shipments of contaminated wipes, wipes will no longer be required to be disposed at expensive permitted hazardous waste facilities and the wipes will not count in determining the generator’s hazardous waste regulatory status.

Conditions for Exclusion
Generators of contaminated wipes and towels must be able to demonstrate they meet all of the conditions for the exclusion.  Loss of the exclusion will result from the failure to meet all of the exclusion’s conditions.  Under the new rule, wipes are excluded from regulation as long as the generator meets the following conditions:

  • Storage: generators must store used wipes in nonleaking, closed, labeled containers which do not contain free liquids when sent offsite for cleaning or disposal.  Free liquids removed from the contaminated-wipe containers need to be managed as hazardous wastes.  The ‘no free liquids’ demonstration under the rule may necessitate testing by an approved EPA test method (paint filter liquids test).
  • Labeling: containers must be labeled “Excluded Solvent-Contaminated Wipes.”
  • Recordkeeping: facilities generating the contaminated wipes are required to maintain onsite documentation of the name and address of the laundry, dry cleaner, landfill or combustor receiving the contaminated wipes, the date accumulation began, and how the no free liquids’ condition is being satisfied.
  • Accumulation Time Limits: a generator may not accumulate or store contaminated wipes onsite for longer than 180 days.
  • Eligible Handling Facilities: used reusable wipes must be sent to laundries or dry cleaners whose wastewater discharges, if any, are regulated under the Clean Water Act.  Used disposable wipes must be sent to combustors (incinerators, boilers, industrial furnaces) regulated under the Clean Air Act, or to regulated municipal solid waste landfills or hazardous waste landfills.  Handling facilities (laundries, dry cleaners, combustors, landfills) are obligated to manage the reusable and disposable wipes during storage in non-leaking, closed  properly labeled containers.

EPA’s federal rule change will be effective six months from Federal Register publication, which will occur soon.

Each state with a U.S. EPA-authorized hazardous waste program will need to modify its hazardous waste rules to incorporate this exclusion for it to be effective in that particular state.  Stated differently, the current state requirements will remain in force and effect until the state adopts requirements equivalent to the federal requirements.  Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana have authorized hazardous waste programs.  In those few states without an authorized program, the exclusion will be effective in six months.

Should you have any questions or need guidance about EPA’s newly modified rule for the disposal of solvent-contaminated wipes please contact Brian Babb at (513) 579-6963 or at


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