Ever since the country celebrated the first Earth Day in 1970, the United States has experienced a gradual but steady growth in its awareness of the impact caused by humans on the environment. Over time, government, business and the nation at large have become acutely aware of the hazards on the health of both the planet and the population caused by pollution of the water, air and land.
By the end of that year, Congress authorized the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency — the crucial watchdog dedicated to enforcing a constellation of new regulations intended to achieve both health and sustainability.
While the movement toward these goals has been ongoing, for various reasons the retail industry has been a latecomer to the green revolution.
“Hazardous waste management in retail is a relatively new concept,” says Wade Scheel, director of environmental, safety and health at compliance and waste management company Stericycle. “It was only a decade ago that the industry began to take note of toxins that were present in a retail environment.”
Around 2010, store inspections by health and environment officials in California and other states began to notice the presence of potentially hazardous products in stores and distribution centers. That led to more frequent inspections and the development of new regulations and protocols mandating proper handling and disposition of waste. It was noted that certain types of retail, such as pharmacies and veterinary offices, would merit special attention.
In 2016 the EPA developed a strategy aimed at helping the industry comply with regulations set out in the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976. Those regulations formed the basis for companies like Stericycle to develop procedures to serve the retail industry. As an incentive to comply, the regulations carry considerable fines for nonobservance.
Petco, a nationwide pet specialty retailer based in San Diego, is one of Stericycle’s many retail clients. The company has more than 1,500 stores nationwide, plus 13 distribution centers. When the new regulations were rolled out, company executives considered the massive task at hand and knew outside help was required.
“There is a lot to know when it comes to proper hazardous waste management, and that is simply not our area of expertise,” says Amy Ebersole-Martinez, manager of environmental, safety and health for Petco.
Petco chose to partner with Stericycle for several reasons, including its status as the only hazardous waste service certified by the Drug Enforcement Agency and the EPA under RCRA.
“Regulated waste unsuited for general trash disposal takes many forms, starting with what we call ‘universal’ items, including light bulbs, batteries and anything that qualifies as a consumer electronic. Another example would be aerosol cans, due to their product and propellant,” Scheel says.
Items unique to a retailer like Petco can include pet shampoos, conditioners, lotions, ointments and the like. Pet vitamins often contain heavy metals such as cadmium and chromium that can be hazardous. Also, medical waste is a particular concern, since many locations have onsite veterinary clinics.
“These can include medications, cleaning chemicals and disinfectants,” Scheel says.
HANDLING THE DETAILS
Stericycle’s responsibility begins at each store location by first assuring all waste has been properly separated prior to transport, as each type must be separately packed and labeled in keeping with the U.S. Department of Transportation, which has its own set of regulations.
After shipment, the waste is sent to a treatment, storage and disposal facility where it is further separated and sent to the appropriate treatment site. While all varieties of waste require special handling, the specific type will vary based on the nature of the item.
Waste that is deemed toxic or flammable are incinerated in highly permitted and regulated facilities. These burners operate at very high temperatures and have a substantial amount of technology designed to remove harmful toxins from being emitted. Aerosol cans are shredded in a machine that blankets it with nitrogen to prevent an explosion. The can’s contents are incinerated, while the metal and plastic are recycled, Scheel says.
Stericycle’s usefulness to its retailer clients is compounded when considering the number of state regulations, which vary markedly and add another layer of complexity to the process. Certain methods of collection and disposal that are permitted in one state may not be in another, creating huge logistical challenges for a company operating in all 50 states.
Regulations can also change unexpectedly, and retailers are generally not set up to keep abreast of such dizzying changes. To address this, Stericycle offers turnkey services.
“We not only observe these regulations, but we also continuously monitor how they change. This allows us to advise our clients and keep them in the loop, while attending to the details ourselves,” Scheel says.
“Whenever we have a question or need regulatory advice or guidance, Stericycle is always there to help us manage the situation and help us meet our sustainability goals,” Ebersole-Martinez says. “We aren’t just a client to them. We are a partner, and they are there to help us navigate any challenge we face.”
Detroit-based Paul Vachon writes for various trade publications, in addition to feature stories for consumer magazines and books on Michigan history and travel.