Waste and Hazardous Materials
Congress passed the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) in 1976. Among other things, RCRA was intended to protect the public from hazardous materials, conserve resources and energy through recycling, reduce or eliminate waste, and clean up waste which has leaked or spilled. While the term garbage typically applies to household refuse and the term solid or hazardous waste to the residual of industrial processes, small business generates both. Many small firms, therefore, fall under the regulatory schemes designed to control them. As a result, this issue of the National Small Business Poll centers on Waste and Hazardous Materials and small business’s direct exposure to the objectives and rules of RCRA.
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Small businesses generate large amounts of garbage and waste. Both must be removed from the business periodically. The removal schedule is a function of varying factors, including the amount of garbage/waste generated, the type of garbage/waste generated, the cost of removal, etc. The most common scheduled interval is weekly (38%), though daily is also common (20%) (Q#4). Twenty-one (21) percent schedule different pick-up intervals for different materials. The remainder operate on other schedules.
Seventy-three (73) percent of small employers hire a hauler to pick up their garbage/waste (Q#4a). But 13 percent take their waste to the dump/landfill themselves and another 11 percent have a landlord that does the job for them. Disposing of the firm’s own waste could result from a number of factors, including availability of commercial service, availability of business vehicles, etc.
Legislation, environmental concern, and occasionally even economics have yielded an increasing focus on recycling. Small business participates in recycling efforts, though the extent of participation is difficult to measure. Paper and metals (cans, etc.) are materials small-business owners are most likely to collect for recycling. Forty-five (45) percent of small businesses collect the former to recycle (Q#5A) and 45 percent the latter (Q#5D). Larger, small firms are somewhat more likely to collect paper than smaller, small firms, but no more likely to collect metal.
Fewer small businesses gather plastics and glass for recycling. Thirty-five (35) percent collect plastics (Q#5C), but just 27 percent collect glass (Q#5B). For both, smaller, small firms are somewhat more likely to participate than larger, small firms.
Small employers recycle at very different rates. Twenty (20) percent recycle all of the four types of wastes mentioned above. Another 8 percent recycle three of the four. But 37 percent do not recycle those wastes and another 36 percent recycle only one or two of them. These figures exaggerate the condition, however. A substantial minority do not generate these wastes making it impossible to recycle them. For example, 12 percent do not generate any glass waste, though just 2 percent have no paper to recycle. That means proportionally more recycling occurs than would initially appear.
Those who collect to recycle none of the four (paper, glass, plastics, metal) or just one or two of them were asked why they do not recycle or recycle more. The most common reason (46%) for the lack of participation is that they generate minimal amounts of the materials in question (Q#6). The second most common reason (26%) is that their disposal service does not separate the material for subsequent recycling. In other words, the business may separate the waste, but it all goes into one big pile after the disposal service picks it up. So, why bother? Other reasons were mentioned much less frequently. Still, significant percentages opined that there are more important things to think about than recycling (10%) and the landlord sets the rules of which recycling is not one (7%).
Recycling used electronic material, or at least disposing of it in a common location, has been drawing increasing attention. Forty-three (43) percent of small employers send their used computers, cell phones, televisions, batteries, and similar material to be recycled or disposed of in a manner specific to the product (Q#7). Forty-five (45) percent do not. Eleven (11) percent term the question not applicable to them.
A clear overlap exists between those businesses that recycle used electronic material and those that also recycle paper, glass, plastic, and metal.
While waste in general creates a variety of public problems, hazardous waste is a subset that creates many more serious problems. Further hazardous waste raises questions about hazardous materials handling before they become waste. Hazardous materials were described to the respondent as acids, solvents, pesticides, used oil, heavy metals like lead or mercury, used chemicals, paint waste, highly combustible substances, and things of that nature. Twenty-five (25) percent of small employers inventoried their businesses in the last three years for hazardous materials use, storage and/or disposal (Q#1); 71 percent did not, and the remainder did not know.
Twenty-one (21) percent of small employers have businesses that use, store, transport, or dispose of hazardous materials (Q#2). In other words, just over one in five small businesses work with such materials. Of that number, 25 percent transport these substances (Q#2a). That represents about 5 percent of all small employers. Seventy-seven (77) percent (16% of the population) store them (Q#2b); and, 57 percent (12% of the population) dispose of them (Q#2c). However, only 19 percent have enough hazardous materials to be required to notify the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or its state equivalent of the amounts they have (Q#2d).
EPA has three classifications of hazardous waste generators for regulatory purposes - conditional exempt generators, small quantity generators and large quantity generators. Eight percent of small employers who generate hazardous materials think they are conditional exempt generators; 36 percent term themselves small quantity generators; and 1 percent think they are large quantity generators (Q#2d1). However, 53 percent do not know.
Since each EPA classification has different rules to follow, small employers need to know the amounts of hazardous material they generate. Rather than use government terminology with which the small employer may not be familiar, the survey question was rephrased for respondents who could not classify themselves with the government’s name and put it in terms of weight or volume. Ninety (90) percent of those who could not classify themselves by government terminology dispose of less than 100 kilograms or its liquid equivalent per month (Q#2d2). These small employers are almost assuredly conditional exempt generators. Thus, more than half (57%) are conditional exempt generators, those with the smallest amounts of hazardous materials (Q#2d3). Meanwhile, 38 percent of the small-business population disposing of hazardous materials are small quantity generators. Just 2 percent are large quantity.
Records maintenance is one of the most demanding aspects of hazardous material use and disposal. Sixty-nine (69) percent of small employers who use, store, transport, or dispose of hazardous material keep records on all such materials used (Q#2e). Most (78%) do so only because government requires it of them (Q#2e3); they would not keep those records for business purposes. Of those who keep records, 30 percent keep them on a single substance (Q#2e1). Another 19 percent keep them on two. That means half who keep records, keep them on just one or two items. Still, 17 percent keep them on 10 or more. Fourteen (14) percent did not offer a response, suggesting records on multiple substances. But the number of those substances cannot be reasonably estimated.
EPA or its state equivalent is supposed to review these records periodically. Forty (40) percent of small employers indicate that at least one of the authorized agencies has examined their hazardous material records in the last three years (Q#2e2). In contrast, 57 percent have not with 4 percent who cannot recall.
Disposal of any hazardous waste material is of considerable concern to numerous interests. It is of concern to small-business owners not only because of possible environmental effects (and resulting suits), but also due to the substantial cost in its disposal. The survey addressed a firm’s most plentiful hazardous waste and its most dangerous hazardous waste; they are not necessarily the same.
The most plentiful hazardous waste generated by small businesses is carted off by a certified hauler in 57 percent of cases (Q#2f). The second most frequent means of disposal (17%) is by the firm itself. The owner or employees take the material to an authorized land fill. Eight percent recycle it on the premises. Four percent burn or incinerate it. But nine percent do not know. The reason such a relatively large number do not know is not obvious.
The means to dispose of the most dangerous hazardous material parallels the means used to dispose of the most plentiful hazardous materials. Fifty-eight (58) percent use a certified hauler, while 19 percent haul the waste to an authorized land fill themselves (Q#2g). Ten (10) percent recycle it on the premises; 2 percent burn or incinerate it. Again, about one in 10 do not know. An important reason for the similarity of disposal methods is that the most plentiful hazardous waste is also the most dangerous hazardous waste in 69 percent of cases (Q#2h).
A related disposal issue can arise with a spill of some type. The survey asked about any spill in the last three years requiring assistance from an outside source to help with the clean-up. One percent (one case in the survey) had such an experience (Q#2i). The only conclusion that results is that serious spills of hazardous materials in small businesses occur rarely.
The problems created by hazardous materials can sometimes be addressed either by reducing the amount of hazardous materials used per unit of output, including substituting other materials for them, or eliminating them entirely. Small-business owners choose all of the above.
Nearly four in five small businesses do not use, store, transport, or dispose of hazardous materials. Of that 79 percent, 90 percent have not used hazardous materials in the last three years (Q#3). But 8 percent used hazardous materials three years ago and no longer do. That translates into about 7 percent who formerly used hazardous materials and do not any more.
Others choose to reduce their per unit use. Fifty-three (53) percent of small businesses that employ hazardous materials use the same amount of hazardous materials per unit of output today as they did three years ago (Q#2k). But, 42 percent or 9 percent of the population have actually been able to decrease their use. The reductions may have been relatively small per firm (the survey produced no data on the topic). Yet, the large number that uses less suggests an important overall reduction in the amount of hazardous materials employed. Two percent increased their per unit use of such substances. The result is a net 40 percent of small businesses using hazardous materials (8% of the population) reduced the amount used per unit of output over the last three years. Add the 8 percent reducing use of hazardous materials to the 7 percent eliminating them and a total of 15 percent have cut use.
The important issues are how and why the reductions occurred. Were the products or processes using hazardous materials reduced/eliminated because the small firms using them found a better way of doing things? Or, was it because they were no longer competitive and had to stop producing/ doing something? The data do not directly speak to the question.
The primary business waste issue for small employers revolves around common garbage. When they generate more than minimal amounts, and many do not, recycling becomes the paramount concern. Only about one in five transports, stores or disposes of hazardous waste. And, among that group, over half generate modest amounts. About one in 10 are seriously impacted from this perspective by RCRA and complementary state regulation. The group encounters a very structured regulatory system. But how often they encounter it is quite another matter. For example, about 30 percent who maintain records on hazardous materials maintain them on only one item while 17 percent maintain them on 10 or more.
The purpose of this survey was to obtain estimates of the number of small employers engaged in various activities related to solid waste. That objective was achieved. A regrettable consequence is that the survey obtained a bit of information about many areas, but little detail on any. Still, a probable paperwork problem was identified. For example, small businesses are often required to maintain records they otherwise would not and government does not appear to check them often. The survey identified infrequent recycling as common. While small volumes affect the propensity to recycle, so do other factors. But as a result of these findings, one begins to see how small business fits into questions of waste and its disposal.