Retail giant Walmart recently pled guilty to multiple violations of hazardous-waste laws and agreed to pay $82 million for the violations.
Warner Norcross & Judd partner Dan DeWitt, from the firm's Grand Rapids office, said that Walmart is not the only large retailer to face hazardous-waste violation charges in recent years, and he expects more fines could follow as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Michigan Department of Environmental Quality continue investigating retailers’ hazardous waste disposal methods.
“I do think it’s going to be an enforcement trend,” DeWitt said.
DeWitt points to a lack of awareness as the main culprit for these violations.
“Environmental laws traditionally have applied to manufacturing companies,” he said. “Manufacturing companies are very much on top of these laws, and they know how to comply with them. These laws haven’t really applied to retailers, or no one has ever really thought of them as applying to retailers, and retailers are not used to dealing with them.
“I think these laws really took some of these big retailers by surprise,” he said.
Is it hazardous?
DeWitt added that many small retailers are exempt from hazardous-waste laws, due to not meeting the disposal quantity of hazardous materials, but as these retailers grow or depending on the products they stock, they might unknowingly become subject to the regulations.
“They really need to look at what they discard and throw away . . . and then they need to inventory and figure out if they are hazardous waste or not,” DeWitt said.
He noted that pharmaceuticals are one category of hazardous waste that retailers might not think about as being hazardous, because of the fact that people ingest these items, but once in a waterway or landfill they are considered hazardous waste.
“Some cough medicines might have enough alcohol in them to be flammable and being flammable is one of the ways we determine if something is a hazardous waste or not,” he said.
Other products that are considered hazardous waste are nail polish, hairspray and deodorant.
Since these items are not generally thought of in the same way as pesticides, solvents and disinfectants, they are more likely to be overlooked even by a company that has some understanding of the hazardous-waste materials it carries and proper disposal methods.
Since Walmart accepted fault for its improper hazardous-waste disposal, the company has developed training programs for its employees to help them understand what types of things might be considered hazardous waste, as well as instituted a color-coded disposal system.
DeWitt recommends that other retailers consider implementing similar training and processes, noting that in a retail environment, any employee may be asked to dispose of or clean up a hazardous-waste item.
“It is really about training your employees to recognize what is hazardous and what is not and then having a system in place, so that they can properly manage the material, and it ends up going to the right disposal facility,” he said.
He added that the infrastructure for hazardous-waste disposal already exists, and retailers need to plug themselves into that system.
“Environmental laws aren’t just for manufacturers," DeWitt said. "Other types of businesses have to really start thinking about this, and retailers are definitely under scrutiny right now. Everybody needs to start to think about, ‘Are there environmental laws that I need to be meeting and complying with?’ I think that is the big point here.”