A surprising number of products found in the average home are considered to be hazardous waste. In order to avoid causing harm to human health or the environment, it’s important that these items to be disposed of properly rather than simply thrown out with ordinary household trash, but not everyone is aware of exactly what products meet the criteria for hazardous waste, or what the best way is to dispose of those products.
If you’re unsure about how to handle your household hazardous waste items (or even about what kinds of hazardous items might be lurking in your garage or bathroom cupboards), the best place to start is at your local hazardous waste drop-off site. Most communities and municipalities have a designated site or facility where various hazardous waste products are collected for proper handling. Your municipal waste management program or public works department can give you more details about your local site and what products are accepted.
In the meantime, read on to learn more about six of the most common household hazardous waste items and what steps you can take to ensure their safe disposal.
Dry cell batteries are found in large quantities in almost every household. According to estimates from battery manufacturers, roughly 2 billion dry cell batteries are sold every year in the US. And with such a high rate of consumption comes a large volume of waste, with the Waste Watch Center estimating that about 1.7 pounds of dry cell battery waste is generated per person annually. Although batteries might not seem to be hazardous, since they are tightly sealed up, the toxic heavy metals they contain, like mercury and cadmium, can seep out over time, so correct disposal is important. Some hazardous waste drop-off sites offer battery recycling programs, and many electronics retailers now accept batteries for recycling or other safe disposal methods.
Regardless of what they contain, aerosol cans should always be handled carefully, as exposure to heat or punctures can cause explosions. If you want to dispose of an aerosol can that still contains some of its original product, take it to your hazardous waste drop-off site. However, once aerosol cans are empty, they can safely be disposed of in your ordinary household trash.
Paint and related products
When it comes to disposing of paint or a similar product safely, the first question you need to ask yourself is whether or not it’s really necessary to throw it away: when they have been properly sealed, cans of paint or stain can easily last for over a decade. If the paint is still in good condition but you’re simply not planning to use it again, organizations like Habitat for Humanity can make good use of leftover paint in their building projects. If, on the other hand, the paint must be thrown away, take it to your hazardous waste drop-off site or a local retailer like Home Depot for disposal. Never pour paint, stain, or paint thinner down the drain.
Household lightbulbs might seem harmless, but most fluorescent or high-intensity discharge bulbs contain small but potentially toxic amounts of mercury, making proper disposal very important. Many hardware retailers accept light bulbs in-store for recycling. You can also check with the light bulb manufacturer to see if they offer a mail-back program which allows you to mail used bulbs back to a recycling center free of charge.
Regular use of household cleaning products tends to be the most common way that people come into contact with hazardous substances, but because the products are so familiar, it is easy to overlook their potential dangers. The first step is to make sure you know your products. The range of toxicity varies from low (for products like window cleaners) to high (for products like furniture polish or oven cleaners), so be sure to always check labels carefully. If you do need to dispose of a household cleaner before you have completely used up the product, low-toxicity items can generally be washed down the sink, as water will dilute them to the point where they are no longer harmful. High-toxicity items, however, should be taken to a hazardous waste drop-off site. As with paint and paint products, you can also donate leftover household cleaners to local non-profits so that they can be used up rather than thrown away.
Flushing prescription medications down the toilet is the way that most people dispose of medicines that are expired or no longer needed, but this is not recommended, as medical substances, particularly in larger quantities, can contaminate groundwater. Instead, unused prescription medications should be returned to a local collector authorized by the US Drug Enforcement Agency to properly dispose of pharmaceutical products (the DEA website offers an online list of authorized collectors). If you can’t find one close by, medications can be mixed with dirt or used coffee grounds, placed in a plastic bag or other sealable container, and thrown out in your household garbage.