A tale of two toothpastes (or, managing state toxic waste disposal)

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October 26, 2020
Waste Management
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Evan Peters
Evan Peters
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Working with a major retailer, Smarter Sorting’s automated waste classification has enabled a 47% reduction in State Toxic waste, saving time and money while helping the environment.

What happens to toothpaste when it is returned to your store? What is the cost – not only to your company, but also the environment – to manage a tube of toothpaste properly? How can one toothpaste be considered an expensive “toxic waste” while another nearly identical tube isn’t?

We’re going to dig into the nerdy minutiae of our world. A world of mysterious toxicology, arcane environmental statutes and the heroic employees embattled by these matters on an everyday basis. We’re going to bring to life the challenges faced by one of the world’s largest retailers and the enormous opportunities now made possible through Smarter Sorting.

But first, we must acknowledge that …

You went to the store and bought the wrong toothpaste…

Your partner is casting you that painfully familiar stare.

They’re not mad, just disappointed.

Dodging inquiries of “how do you not know which toothpaste they like?” you attempt to amend this egregious error.

You have three options.

You can:

1. Throw it away. Often the first thing that comes to mind. Terrible, yes, but out of sight and out of mind. It can’t be the best option though.

2. Return it to the store. Probably the smartest thing to do. You get your money back and your household can go back to using your tried and true brand.

3. Put your foot down and say “tough luck.” But this isn’t the hill you want to die on, so option #2 it is…

The Great “State Toxics” Bucket

So you’ve returned your toothpaste and the retailer has generously accepted it. To a consumer, the experience is one of mild inconvenience mixed with relief. Armed with the product and a receipt, you exchange them back to the store for money. Simple as that.

But what happens on the retailer side of things? Who’s taking the toothpaste – and where? What’s happening next? Do you always have so many questions?

The job of knowing what to do with your toothpaste – and the thousands of other products returned to Smarter Sorting’s retail partners each day – falls to a very special set of employees who work in the back of stores to manage customer returns, damaged items, donation programs, return-to-vendor programs … the list goes on.

These back-of-store staffers are a lynchpin in the daily operations of retail stores. They work tirelessly out of sight from consumers like you returning unwanted toothpaste. They handle all items that are returned by customers and all items that otherwise go unsold. It’s about 1 in 10 products, if you can believe it.

Among their responsibilities is managing items that must be handled as hazardous waste due to federal, state and local chemical regulatory requirements.

In the back of the store, there is a section dedicated to hazardous waste management. This is where items that can’t be returned to the vendor or donated get sorted into hazardous waste buckets – often bright colored containers, per the example we staged below at Smarter Sorting HQ. Each container represents a distinct set of hazardous criteria. Picking the correct bucket is critical  for ensuring the most safe, sustainable, and cost effective decision is made.

Example Back of Store Area, as mocked up in Smarter Sorting’s Retail Lab

Items are sorted based on their hazards. Federal or RCRA hazards account for most of the hazardous waste buckets. Flammables, corrosive acids, corrosive bases, reactives, toxics – if RCRA regulates it, it’s sorted.

At every retailer, there’s usually one bucket for all the non-RCRA waste. A “State Toxics” drum for wastes that aren’t federally regulated but are considered toxic by certain ecologically minded states (Washington, for example). By and large, the State Toxics container usually contains the most waste by weight.

Allocation of Waste Streams (% of total) for a representative retailer

Knowing exactly what should and should not go into the State Toxic bucket is actually a very difficult task. To make it simple, many retailers call most non-federally-regulated chemicals state toxics in order to play it safe.

But what actually is a state toxic? Is toothpaste one of them?

A Tale Of Two Toothpastes

Close your eyes and imagine the toothpaste aisle.

Promises of whiter teeth, brighter teeth, cavity protection, plaque annihilation, better breath, a gentler experience, some benefit for your gums because teeth don’t have a monopoly on dental health.

We all know the array of benefits that are marketed to us. But let’s look at it through another lens – whether the chemicals in the toothpaste create expensive waste for retailers.

We selected two toothpastes that are sold in nearly identical boxes. They are sold by the same brand and they occupy more or less the same spot on the retail shelf. One promises whitening, the other cavity protection, but from 10 feet away you’d swear the boxes are the same.

But these near-identical toothpastes are starkly different should they become regulated waste.

Toothpaste #1 is a WT02 regulated waste in Washington.

Toothpaste #2 is not.

How is it that one of them is a regulated waste and one of them isn’t? Aren’t they both just toothpaste?

It all boils down to the toxicity of each ingredient in the products. To find the ingredient composition and make an accurate waste determination for Washington State, check out the product Safety Data Sheet, also known as an SDS.

For Toothpaste #1, we have the following information about the ingredients listed in the product’s Safety Data Sheet:

That’s a long list of chemicals, but there are four that really matter for Washington regulations:

  • Tetrasodium pyrophosphate (Washington Toxic Category D)
  • Sodium lauryl sulfate (C)
  • Hydrogen peroxide (D)
  • L-menthol (D)

All of these ingredients meet the listed toxicity thresholds for Washington State…

… And the cumulative concentration of these ingredients in this specific toothpaste is enough for the product to be considered a WT02 Washington State Toxic Waste*.

E.C. = (5% / 10000) + (5% / 1000) + (5% / 10000) + (5% / 10000)

E.C. = 0.0065%

(E.C. > 0.001%) AND (E.C. < 1.000%) = TRUE

∴ WT02 Waste

* This math can be intimidating… More on how Smarter Sorting automates Washington State’s complex hazardous waste determinations here.

Toothpaste #2, however, has a different, less toxic, group of ingredients:

Carvone (CAS-No. 6485-40-1) is toxic according to Washington State, but there isn’t enough in this formulation to exceed the toxicity thresholds.

E.C. = (1% / 10000)

E.C. = 0.0001%

(E.C. > 0.001%) AND (E.C. < 1.000%) = FALSE

∴ NOT WT02 Waste

In plain English, this toothpaste is not regulated by the State of Washington.

An Expensive and Wasteful Problem

Why does it matter whether an item is considered a state toxic or not?

Hazardous items require tracking via waste manifests, and every ounce of waste is measured to ensure retailers properly manage EPA Generator Status, especially in Washington where state waste counts toward strict regulatory limits. Also, improper disposal of hazardous wastes by retailers can lead to hefty fines.

To be safe and avoid any regulatory trouble, retailers pay hazardous waste professionals to haul the waste products away. A pound of State Toxic waste can cost anywhere from 20 – 30 times more in disposal fees than a pound of non-hazardous waste. An unnecessary hazardous waste classification (as is often the case with State Toxics) leads to more expensive regulated waste.

So just how much toothpaste comes through the back of a store, either via returns or otherwise?

The answer…

A Lot of Toothpaste

Using high-fidelity tracking of our retail partners’ in- store operations, we can pinpoint the volume of materials finding their way into the back of the store.

Over the course of one year at 30 sample retail locations, we found that nearly 1,140 pounds were returned to the back of stores! That’s 38 lbs of toothpaste – or 148 tubes – per store, per year.

If you extrapolate that 148-tube/year rate across 750 retail stores – a reasonable assumption   for a major retailer – that adds up to 28,497 pounds of toothpaste a year!

Thankfully, our retail partners have sterling donation programs that help local and national programs send valuable products to people who can put them to good use.

But if a given tube can’t be donated – say, because it’s damaged or leaking – the remainder doesn’t always need to become regulated waste.

For environmentally conscious retailers using Smarter Sorting, instantly receiving accurate state toxicity determinations has led to dramatic decreases in state toxic misclassifications.

And over the past year, Smarter Sorting has directly contributed to a 47% reduction in overall State Toxic waste across our retail partners. And we’re just getting started.


Not every retailer faces the same challenges. For some, it’s managing the disposal of returned toothpaste in the most economical and sustainable way. For others, it may be ensuring the compliant shipping of electronic devices with lithium ion batteries or diverting cleaning supplies from their waste stream.

What are your unique compliance challenges? Reach out to us to learn how you can save time and money by drastically reducing your State Toxic waste. We look forward to hearing from you.

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Waste is a byproduct of retail. It can be minimized but it’s impossible to avoid. When handled correctly and sustainably by recycling, donating, and directing to the correct waste streams, retailers can achieve their critical ESG goals.But how can retailers achieve this efficiently and at scale? Data and technology are the key to handling waste responsibly and ensuring sustainability is front and centerRecently, US Ecology Technician Bryan Thompson wrapped up his weekly route with a waste pickup at a major retailer in Lake Nona, Florida. Unbeknownst to him, the twelve minutes spent on-site would achieve a significant milestone.Bryan’s stop was the 100,000th service performed by US Ecology using Smarter Sorting's Back of Store System, which syncs with hardware in US Ecology trucks. Launched in July of 2020, this data driven software solution streamlines hazardous waste pickups while ensuring safety and compliance throughout the process. When paired with Smarter Sorting’s Back of Store System for Retailers, data shared between the two systems generates significant time savings for waste diversion as well as the safe and accurate disposal or recycling of consumer goods—resulting in savings passed on to retailers and consumer goods brands.US Ecology CEO Jeff Feeler praised the Smarter Sorting solution during a recent earnings call. “Our investment in AI software has generated a 30% increase in stops per day in our retail program with the installation of this technology in our fleet. We believe further efficiencies will be realized as retail customers adopt these technologies, including a new sorting process in the back of the retail stores.”Bryan Thompson added: “The system is both simple and efficient, and provides access to a dedicated support team if needed. It reduces the time it takes to complete a pickup, and ensures more products are sustainably recycled or donated, rather than disposed of, than ever before,”Smarter Sorting would like to congratulate Bryan for this historic milestone. We look forward to helping all members of the US Ecology fleet know more and do better for the next 100,000 stops—and beyond.

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Sunflowers and car batteries

What happens to unused car batteries? Smarter Sorting explores the negative effects of e-waste in landfills and how to stop it at its source.

This is a story that begins and ends with electronic waste. Somewhere in between, we incorporate landfills, soil remediation and sunflowers into the mix. I promise it will all make sense, just follow closely.

Have you ever wondered what happens to electric car batteries when they run out of juice? Strange question, sure. But really think about it. The Nickel Cadmium battery is replaced with a brand spankin’ new Lithium Ion battery…but where does our beloved old “Nicad” battery go?

Let’s expand on that idea. What about old headphones, wires and computer monitors that are relinquished to a dumpster, never to spark electronic joy in a household ever again?

For many consumers and businesses, the thought abruptly stops there. Out of sight, out of mind, right? But with electronic waste – popularly known as “e-waste” – accumulating at an alarming rate, these are questions worth asking.

Follow us down the garbage chute…

The E-waste Conundrum

E-waste encompasses any unusable or otherwise unwanted electrical or electronic equipment. Car batteries, cell phones, TV screens and those pesky fax machines are a few examples, but anything that plugs into an outlet or contains a battery is fair game.                                    

With the rising popularity of cord-free products, the number of batteries piling up in landfills is on the rise. Nicad batteries contribute to this waste stream in a particularly interesting way (and trust me this’ll all make sense soon).

Nicads were at one time widely used in a variety of products, most notably in electric vehicles up until the 1990’s. Due to toxicity concerns and alternative battery types entering the market, their use has steadily declined. Nicads currently account for roughly 6% of all batteries in global circulation.

As a result, many of these Nicads are finding their way to the landfill. This is, perhaps, not surprising; the EPA estimates that only 12.5% of e-waste is actually recycled.

The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) was signed into law in 1976 to address growing volumes of waste, and is our nation’s primary law governing solid and hazardous waste disposal. Plenty of new mandates have been added in the years since the law’s creation. One mandate in particular calls for waste minimization – the “use of source reduction and/or environmentally sound recycling methods prior to treating or disposing of hazardous wastes”.

Per this mandate, waste that could be considered hazardous should undergo environmentally sound recycling methods prior to disposal. The data indicates that this practice is not exactly being followed to a tee.

Repeat after me, electronics have no place in landfills.

A common misconception is that landfilled waste poses little risk to the surrounding environment because it is fully contained in the landfill. This couldn’t be further from the truth though. Discarded items are constantly shifting, changing, and finding their way out of the landfill. Heavy rainfall often mixes with landfill waste to form a chemical effluent called leachate. This solid waste byproduct can then find its way into surface waters like rivers and lakes.

Every properly engineered landfill is “contained” by a composite liner system that sits directly underneath the site.

The liner acts as a barrier to slow the migration of leachate from the landfill. However, these liners aren’t perfect. They wear down over time, and can succumb to natural wear and tear. In these cases, small quantities of leachate may percolate into the soil and nearby groundwater supply, spreading to all connected waterways. Not only is this ecologically devastating for aquatic organisms, but it’s detrimental to land-based organisms that draw water from these sources (think plants, trees, and ….humans).

By the same processes, heavy metals from our Nicad batteries may inevitably leach into the water supply. To get a sense of the magnitude of this issue, consider an EPEAT estimate that approximately 40% of heavy metals in U.S. landfills originate from discarded electronics. When this occurs, a series of processes chemically fix the metals into surrounding soils.

When heavy metals become fixed in soil, a host of issues arise. Organisms that depend on the soil become exposed to the heavy metals and their toxic effects. Plants will uptake metals from the soil. Large grazing animals will consume the plant matter. Humans will consume both plant matter and grazing animals, ingesting a double whammy of heavy metals.

Heavy metal pollutants have been known to have carcinogenic effects on the body, resulting in tumorous growth and directly impacting cellular life cycles. Cadmium specifically has been known to cause a slew of health issues. Namely kidney disease, fragile bones, lung damage, and many others.

So, our soil is contaminated with Nickel and Cadmium, great! What in the world do we do next?

Sunflower Phytoremediation

Modern methods of soil remediation – the process of removing contaminants from soil – are highly cost and time intensive. These methods can be more difficult to deploy and monitor when lower concentrations of contaminants are spread out over large areas.

Phytoremediation, the process of using hyperaccumulator plants for soil remediation, may offer a more effective alternative than traditional methods of soil remediation. Hyperaccumulators are capable of growing in high concentrations of heavy metals, in both solid and aqueous environments. These plants are able to extract metals from the soil through their root systems and other uptake channels.

By leveraging the root networks of plants that naturally absorb metals fixed in the soil, larger, undefined areas of contamination can be treated. Scattered metals are concentrated in more centralized locations of plants and root networks, making them easier to identify, collect, and eventually treat.

One of the most effective hyperaccumulators, the common sunflower, is able to effectively uptake both Cadmium and Nickel through its root system network.

Sunflowers were used to reduce concentrations of Chromium and Nickel in two locations in Greece: the Asopos River and Messapia. These two regions provide a significant portion of crop yield and are afflicted by high concentrations of heavy metal in their irrigation aquifers. The results showed that the sunflowers planted in areas with high concentrations of heavy metals successfully reduced the concentrations of metals in the soil and groundwater.

Hyperaccumulation in the plants allowed for easier harvesting. From there, the metal content in the plants could be extracted, or the entire plant could be properly treated and disposed of.

The Root of the Issue

While sunflowers may provide a viable method of soil remediation in certain scenarios, the root of the issue still remains: e-waste and its toxic heavy metals are still reaching landfills in alarmingly high quantities.

The issues stem from a combination of things: a lack of education, recycling malpractice, and a lack of visibility into waste and recycling operations.

Consumers by and large are unaware of the e-waste disposal options available to them. Commercial businesses and manufacturers may be knowingly and unknowingly engaging in sham recycling. Millions of consumers and businesses are trashing electronics every day, making it nearly impossible for government agencies to identify all the infractions and enforce RCRA protocols.

Even when attempting to properly recycle, many businesses are unaware of the laws and nuances governing specific items. For example, cathode ray tubes (CRTs) are considered hazardous waste, and must be safely and compliantly recycled according to RCRA stipulations. There are, however, conditional exclusions for used, broken CRTs that may apply. Batteries, on the other hand, are considered a universal waste, and are subject to less stringent regulations (with a few exceptions, of course).

With the variety and complexity of electronic items becoming e-waste every day, keeping up with regulations can be a daunting task. Manually deciphering complex regulations is a time consuming and outdated mission. Humans make mistakes – it happens. But honest mistakes can snowball into non-compliance events and enormous fines for businesses.

Smarter E-waste

Smarter Sorting leverages machine learning and product intelligence to automate the correct RCRA waste codes and decision making for consumer products. Real time data is updated continuously, and available instantly. Most importantly, electronic items that are eligible for recycling are identified so they can be sent to safe, reputable e-waste recyclers.

Together, with the help of some brave and committed sunflowers, we can keep heavy metals out of landfills, water, and soil – for good.

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