Ask RIPA: Information to Help Your Business Succeed

This letter is a continuation of RIPA’s new regulatory information letters.  Periodically, RIPA will select a topic we believe is of interest to the general membership and we will give you a summary of the topic, relevant background information and, as needed, some compliance pointers.  Please feel free to suggest topics to us for future letters by contacting the association at [email protected].

Understanding the Term “RCRA-Empty Container”

Introduction

One of the most used and least understood phrases in the industrial shipping container vocabulary is “RCRA-empty container.”  (RCRA stands for “Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.)  Reconditioners need to know what the phrase means because federal law says that every container that previously contained an EPA regulated substance – – think hazardous materials plus – – must be RCRA-empty to be accepted for reconditioning.  The regulation itself can be found here.

The term came into being in 1980, following adoption by EPA of a comprehensive regulatory regime governing the handling of hazardous waste.  At the time, RIPA objected to the proposed rule because it would have forced all reconditioners to be classified as hazardous waste “treatment, storage and disposal facilities” (TSDF).  After review, EPA concluded it was not necessary to regulate the industry as stringently as waste disposal companies and that requiring residue to be managed as hazardous waste would impose substantial burdens on industry and potentially end the environmentally beneficial practice of reusing industrial containers.   

EPA recognized that after being emptied of their original contents, small amounts of residue remain inside nearly all industrial packagings.  Therefore, they adopted the “empty container rule,” which provides that a container that has been emptied as fully as practicable using commonly employed emptying practices is deemed empty and “is not subject to regulation.” EPA created minor exceptions to the empty container rule for viscous materials originally transported in drums or intermediate bulk containers, allowing up to approximately 3% by weight in drums (about one inch of material) and 0.3 % by weight IBCs (about 0.8 gallon in a 275 gallon capacity IBC).  California has a somewhat more stringent empty container rule that effectively requires containers being sent to reconditioners to be “drip-dry.” 

Importantly, the emptier of a drum or other industrial container has certain responsibilities with respect to the residues that continue to adhere to that container.  DOT transportation regulations state that an industrial container that held a U.S. DOT-regulated hazardous material, then is emptied, and now holds only the residue of that material, still must be shipped as if it were full of its original contents (here). 

This means that the container must be closed, with the closures tightly in place.  If the lid is gone or removed from an open head drum, or the closures are missing or loose, the DOT regulations are not being met.  In addition, all marks and labels originally required when the container was full, are still required when it is shipped with residual contents.

Relief from DOT shipping papers is granted for non-bulk packaging “when collected and transported by a contract or private carrier for reconditioning, remanufacture or reuse.”  Placarding of the vehicle is not required for emptied non-bulk packaging, but placarding is required for intermediate and bulk packagings that continue to hold residue of a hazardous material.

To facilitate the handling of emptied containers in the reconditioning industry, RIPA created a model empty container certification form that is recommended for use by members.  This form explains the empty container rule to customers and requires them to sign a form indicating they understand that the industrial containers provided to you for transport meet both the DOT and EPA RCRA.

RIPA has developed a wonderful video, “Understanding the RCRA Empty Container Rule,” which can be found (here) on the web site.  We encourage every member to watch it and show it to your customers. 

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