EPA addresses disposal of shop towels

Jan. 1, 2020
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says auto repair shops are one of the chief beneficiaries of a final rule having to do with disposal of shop towels.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says auto repair shops are one of the chief beneficiaries of a final rule having to do with disposal of shop towels.

Those towels are used to mop up grease and solvents, and can be either disposable or reused, in the latter case sent to laundries. More than 25 years ago, if you can believe this, Kimberly-Clark, which manufactures disposable wipes, petitioned the EPA to change the classification of disposable wipes from "hazardous" to "non hazardous." That would make them cheaper and easier to use for repair and body shops.

The EPA issued a proposed rule to that effect, with caveats, in 2003. Then...nothing. No final rule was ever issued until this July, when after 28 years, a final rule suddenly appeared, seemingly out of nowhere. The EPA has classified the final rule as "significant." It is effective on January 31, 2014.

The final rule ostensibly reduces the costs of using disposable wipes, which are reclassified as "non-hazardous." This applies to wipes contaminated by what are called F0001-F0004 solvents, a designation that includes most solvents used in the auto aftermarket except trichloroethylene, which will continue to be treated as hazardous waste.

As a result, auto repair and body shops will no longer have to "manifest" most disposable wipes when they are sent off-site, and they can be sent to non-hazardous waste handling facilities. But the used disposable wipes have to be managed, while on site, in closed containers that are labeled "Excluded Solvent-Contaminated Wipes." The wipes can only be stored on site up to 180 days. Solvent-contaminated wipes must not contain free liquids at the point of being sent for cleaning or disposal.

This is a harder to meet standard than the one the EPA proposed in 2003, which would have required auto repair facilities to "ring dry" the wipe before getting rid of it.  To achieve the new "no free liquids" standard, facilities will have to use what is called the Paint Filter Liquids Test (Method 9095B).

This test involves using a number 60 +/- 5% paint filter available at any paint store. If any portion of the wipe's contents passes through and drops from the filter within the 5-minute test period, the material is deemed to contain free liquids. Free liquid solvent removed from the wipes must then be managed as hazardous waste, as appropriate, and may be recycled to further reduce a facility's environmental footprint.

The Paint Filter Liquids Test is already used by many state environmental agencies leading the EPA to say specification of that test is no big deal.

And don't think you have to test every rag. The EPA doesn't say this in bold face in any of the materials on its website dedicated to this final rule, but an auto shop is not expected to perform this test on every single disposable wipe. If one reads every word of the final rule, one would find these two sentences: "EPA notes that generators do not have to conduct the Paint Filter Liquids Test for every solvent-contaminated wipe. Rather, generators must ensure that if the Paint Filter Liquids Test was performed, the wipe would pass."

EPA estimates that the final rule will result in a net savings of between $21.7 million and $27.8 million per year. That is for all affected industries, not just the automobile repair and aftermarket services sector.

“I’ve heard directly from stakeholders about the benefits of this rule and the need to finalize it," says Mathy Stanislaus, assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response. "The rule reduces costs for thousands of businesses, many of which are small businesses, while maintaining protection of human health and the environment.” 

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