What you put in the trash can cost you a fortune. Regulators are increasingly interested in companies’ disposal practices and are initiating investigations and enforcement actions. The “dumpster dives” form the basis of a steady stream of income for the State of California and various District Attorneys.

Today, the California Attorney General and Alameda District Attorney (collectively, the “State”) announced a settlement with a Comcast Corporation resolving a three-year investigation into the company’s waste handling practices. The settlement includes $23 million in penalties and costs and a commitment to devote resources to compliance efforts over the next five years.    

Unsuspecting businesses may be subject to surprise investigations focusing on trash. It may be illegal to throw into the trash many used and commonly discarded materials, such as electronic devices, batteries, fluorescent bulbs and aerosol cans. The Federal government, California and many other states have developed a variety of regulations that apply to businesses handling materials that are not commonly thought to be “hazardous.” However, these common materials, and others, may be regulated as “hazardous waste” or “universal waste.”

Surprisingly, regulators do not always notify the company it is the subject of an investigation. Quite often a company first hears of an investigation through the service of subpoenas seeking information and executive testimony relating to the Company’s waste handling practices in California. It is possible the State has been investigating a company for months or even longer than a year before the company finds out. A recent settlement shows the periodic dumpster dives spanned 15 months before the California regulators notified the company of the investigation.

The office of the California Attorney General recently settled a number of enforcement actions, both during and prior to litigation, with several businesses in California. These companies ran into trouble with procedures relating to the handling of their waste (and associated recordkeeping and training requirements) and also retail returns. Some of the companies and their settlements include:

  • AT&T: $21.8 Million (M) and Comcast $23 M – alleged unlawful disposal of electronic equipment and other items used by service technicians, as well as other universal and hazardous wastes.
  • Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.: $27 M – alleged illegal transportation and disposal of hazardous, toxic waste and materials.
  • Target: $22.5 M – alleged intentional and negligent unauthorized transportation and disposal of hazardous and universal waste.
  • CVS Pharmacy, Inc.: $13.75 M – alleged violation of California laws for the safe storage, handling and disposal of medical waste, pharmaceutical, pharmacy waste, and more.

Most of the companies which are subject to these investigations develop and implement sophisticated programs for their recycling and discarding processing. Some businesses craft industry-specific solutions to handle reverse logistics and recycling of electronic waste.

Looking at a company’s waste streams helps frame the procedures a company should use when it decides how to dispose of a waste. Determining if the waste is hazardous should drive the discussion. A less stringent regulatory scheme is in place for universal waste, but the failure to perform “lighter” requirements properly can subject a company to enforcement under the hazardous waste laws. Compliance can be without a solid program which encompasses waste determination, disposal, training and recordkeeping. In the meantime, check the dumpsters -- the government may already be doing so.