garbage can universal waste

What’s the Deal with Universal Waste?

The recycling and waste world has a lot of lingo. There’s the organic waste, green waste, electronic waste, universal waste, and even space waste. (check out the Rubicon terminology guide here: We’ve got your back.)

While you may be able to figure out what those types of waste are through context clues, universal waste is a little trickier. It may sound like an all-encompassing category, but that’s not the case. To put it simply, universal waste is a specific category of waste that includes hazardous materials like fluorescent lamps, cathode ray tubes, mercury, and batteries. Learn about what exactly universal waste includes, how to properly dispose of it, and more, below.

What is universal waste?

Universal waste was established as its own category by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1995. According to federal universal waste regulations, there are four categories of universal waste.

    • Batteries: While some batteries, such as the ‘spent lead-acid’ variety, are not classified as universal waste, most batteries do fall into this category.
    • Pesticides: This category includes any substance used for repelling pests and regulating plants.
    • Any items containing mercury: This includes thermostats and other equipment.
    • Lamps: Common universal waste lamps include fluorescent lights, neon lights, and metal halide lamps.

As of 2018, the EPA is proposing adding aerosol cans to the list of UW categories.

There are also state-specific universal waste items that aren’t classified as “UW” under federal regulations. The EPA allows states to craft their own universal waste standards that include additional classifications and provisions. Other state-specific universal waste items include:

  • Aerosol cans in California and Colorado
  • Antifreeze in Louisiana and New Hampshire
  • Ballasts in Maine, Maryland, and Vermont
  • Barometers in New Hampshire and Rhode Island
  • Cathode ray tubes in Maine, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island
  • Electronics in Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska, and New Jersey
  • Oil-based finishes in New Jersey
  • Paint in Texas
  • Hazardous waste pharmaceuticals in Florida and Michigan

Learn more about state-specific universal waste programs here.

How do you dispose of universal waste?

Due to the hazardous nature of UW, the EPA has specific guidelines on how it should be handled.

There are four types of regulated parties that are allowed to process and dispose of universal waste:

  • Small quantity handlers
  • Large quantity handlers
  • Universal waste transporters
  • Universal waste destination facilities

Small and large quantity handlers can include businesses, hospitals, schools, and local governments. All of the four groups listed above must follow specific EPA regulations like clearly labeling containers, properly storing materials, providing comprehensive training for employees, and carefully tracking their UW footprint.

As for how handlers should deal with UW, here are some pointers:

  • Batteries: Universal waste batteries must be contained, especially if they are leaking or damaged.
  • Pesticides: To prevent getting into the environment, pesticides must be contained in fully closed and undamaged tanks or vessels.
  • Mercury-containing equipment: This must also be contained in structurally sound containers. Special handlers of mercury equipment can remove an ampule of mercury (the airtight glass or plastic vial) to prevent any breakage. To remove the ampule, individuals must be properly trained, work in a ventilated area, and clean up any broken ampules according to hazardous waste regulations.
  • Lamps: Lamps must be kept in structurally sound containers; broken lamps must be cleaned up and put into a sturdy container.

All universal waste must be transported by the handler of the waste or a trained third party that complies with transportation standards.

Individuals and households are exempt from the EPA’s UW regulations on disposal and transportation; however, that doesn’t mean you should toss mercury thermometers or fluorescent bulbs in the trash! Instead, take care to properly dispose of any items by dropping it off at a retailer that accepts universal waste, bringing it to a collection event, or enrolling in a curbside program or pick-up service.

Can you prevent universal waste?

Clearly, universal waste is highly regulated and monitored. That said, consider choosing alternatives that reduce your use of items that ultimately become universal waste. For example, choose thermometers or thermostats without mercury, and stay away from aerosol cans.

If you’re unable to avoid using items that are counted as universal waste, the best thing to do is ensure that you’re disposing of it properly.


Read about our RUBICONMethod to find out how you can start a waste reduction program at your business.

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