Hazardous Waste Compliance a Balancing Act at the Retail Level
Today, hazardous waste compliance is no longer just an issue for the industrial or manufacturing industries. It’s become an area of significant concern for retailers as well. When it comes to managing hazardous waste, retailers are in a precarious balance of complexity and control due to a number of factors. As many high profile fines against retailers underscore, the financial repercussions of failing to strike the right balance can be significant. Not only do such infractions place a monetary burden on retailers, public fines can also negatively impact a brand’s reputation. With consumer loyalty at stake, it’s safe to estimate that negative news and the reputation damage to a brand could cost a company millions in lost sales in addition to these fines. In light of these variables, it’s critical that retailers strike the right balance to comply with today’s hazardous waste regulations.
With that in mind, the following are just a few challenges of hazardous waste management for retailers.
Definitions of which materials are considered hazardous can vary at the federal, state and county levels, and are constantly evolving with political, environmental and economic pressures. Coastal states have historically been the drivers of compliance because of their proximity to watersheds and coastlines, however, many landlocked regions are now increasing their regulatory oversight. In addition to this geographic shift, the EPA is bringing an increased focus on compliance at a national level. These factors mean that retailers who have directed compliance program investments solely within the historically most active regions face new vulnerabilities.
State and federal agencies task retailers with adhering to regulations originally designed for the manufacturing industry, which deals with a drastically smaller set of materials and is thus better able to separate and store hazardous waste. The process of managing, reporting, tracking and disposing of hazardous materials can present significant challenges for retailers, however. Household products ranging from paints and batteries to bleach, detergents, and pesticides all contain toxic chemicals which, if not managed properly, can be hazardous to human health and the environment.
In addition to a much wider variety of hazardous materials, retail locations have a significantly smaller footprint than their manufacturing counterparts. As such, proper storage of hazardous materials poses a much greater challenge. Retailers must segregate all unsalable products into one of the following categories: 1.) returnable to the manufacturer, 2.) able to be reused via donation, 3.) able to be resold or 3.) waste material. Next, the retailer has to further classify the waste materials as hazardous, non-hazardous or universal waste in compliance with federal and various state regulations. The products classified as hazardous waste must be properly separated from other waste material and stored until they can be removed and, ultimately, destroyed.
Not only does the retail industry deal with a larger set of hazardous materials than their manufacturing counterparts, most retail associates are customer service focused and not experienced with the complexities of hazardous materials handling. Even when retailers make hazardous waste compliance training a part of the onboarding process, without any experience in this area, it’s often difficult for personnel to properly adhere to regulatory standards. The high turnover nature of the industry adds additional complexities. With new employees coming and going and seasonal spikes impacting staffing needs, retailers are constantly challenged to ensure all associates are educated on the proper handling of hazardous materials.
In addition to these obstacles geography poses a major challenge. The distributed nature of retail makes it difficult for brands to ensure consistency of operations from site to site. Unless properly managed, this can prevent corporate headquarters from having a comprehensive view of compliance initiatives and leave the organization vulnerable.
In addition to the complexities outlined above, retailers will be further challenged as hazardous waste management becomes increasingly digital. In October 2012 President Obama signed into law the “Hazardous Waste Electronic Manifest Establishment Act,” which directs that by 2015, the EPA must come up with a uniform plan to move from paper-based to digital documents for all of its records. Furthermore, the Obama administration’s proposed fiscal 2015 EPA budget will include an additional $7 million of increased funding to support the development of an electronic manifest system for hazardous waste. In accordance with the new initiative, also referred to as “e-Manifest,” retailers will need to modernize their own compliance reporting environments for the digital era.
An expert partner can prepare retailers for these and additional challenges of hazardous waste management by designing an effective compliance program customized to the brand’s unique needs. Partnering with an expert can help protect companies from the myriad implications of non-compliance, and ensure that retailers find the right balance between complexity and control necessary to comply with hazardous waste regulations.
Mike Rozembajgier is vice president of Stericycle.
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