News & Insights

Epa Announces Plan To Modify Lithium Ion Batteries Treatment As Universal Waste And Extend Definition Of Universal Waste To Include Photovoltaic Solar Panels

The vast expansion of the renewable energy sector has prompted the EPA to modify existing universal waste requirements regarding the disposal of lithium-ion batteries and expand the universal waste rule to cover photovoltaic solar panels. The universal waste program was implemented in May 1995, as a subsection of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), to regulate certain widely generated hazardous wastes. At the time, the rules covered hazardous waste batteries, waste pesticides, and waste thermostats containing mercury. The rule has been expanded to cover certain hazardous waste lamps, other mercury-containing equipment, and aerosol cans. Lithium-ion batteries are already subject to the universal waste rule, but some unique attributes have pressed the EPA to seek more specific control over their disposal.

Lithium-ion is a category of battery with variances in structure and chemical composition. Despite differences in the batteries, many being used prevalently in the United States present some risk of flammability or reactivity as their useful lives end. The broad variance in the structure and composition of batteries makes it more difficult for handlers to determine with certainty whether the batteries with which they work are likely to cause fires or react with other chemicals. Mismanagement and damage to batteries in the later stages of use makes fires even more likely. The EPA’s strategy is to promulgate new regulations that will regulate the disposal of all lithium-ion batteries as a subpart of the universal waste scheme provided in RCRA.

Though the Agency has not conveyed the details of any proposed rules, they are expected to include restrictions on the storage of batteries at the end of their use. Some commentators have wondered whether the new rule will include broken or leaking lithium-ion batteries, which are currently not included in the universal waste program. The rule may also address relevant land use restrictions, and variances and exclusions related to other government programs.

Solar panels are currently not considered universal waste by the federal government but are by California and Hawaii (with New York and North Carolina considering similar classifications). Some photovoltaic panels contain enough metals, like lead, to meet the definition of hazardous waste. Most do not. However, to promote the safe disposal and recycling of all solar panels, the EPA plans to designate them as universal waste.

The rule regarding photovoltaic panels is being made partially in response to a petition by industry groups, which was submitted to the Agency in November 2021. The petition requests that the EPA “adopt a universal waste management standard for photovoltaic solar panels . . . to support the transition to clean energy.” The groups argue that requiring solar panels to be collected and separated from the larger waste stream will allow for their mass recycling and ease the transition into greater renewable energy production.