You might think of hazardous waste as something that’s only found in a factory or industrial facility, but in fact, hazardous waste can be found almost anywhere in an ordinary household. Almost all areas of the home, from the kitchen, bathroom, and laundry room to storage areas like the garage, basement, or garden shed, can house products that contain hazardous substances.
Read on to learn more about what household hazardous waste is, and how it should be handled.
What is household hazardous waste (HHW)?
Hazardous waste is defined as any unwanted product, material, or substance that can cause illness or death to people, animals, and plants. In the household, a surprising number of common, everyday products fall into this category, due to the chemicals or other hazardous substances they contain. Fortunately, most HHW can be fairly easily identified by looking for the appropriate hazard symbol on the packaging.
The “Toxic/Poison” hazard symbol identifies those substances that poison or harm living organisms, including batteries, antifreeze, solvents, fertilizers, pesticides, wood stains and preservatives, and compact fluorescent light bulbs.
The “Corrosive” hazard symbol identifies substances that eat away at surfaces, including human and animal skin. Bleach and household cleaners, laundry stain removers, wax strippers, rust removers, drain cleaners, oven cleaners, and automotive lead-acid batteries are all typical examples of corrosive materials.
The “Flammable” hazard symbol designates substances that burn easily and that can be unexpectedly ignited even with a minimal spark or heat. Common flammable items include gasoline, motor oil, fuel oil, camping fuel, lighter fluids, paint thinners, oil-based paints, paint brush cleaners, insect repellent, furniture cleaners, and partially full aerosol containers.
The “Reactive/Explosive” hazard symbol is used on pressurized containers that contain materials that could be damaging to living organisms. This symbol is most often seen on aerosol cans with unused product and on gas cylinders carrying propane or butane.
Is improper HHW disposal dangerous?
Unfortunately, it is quite common for HHW to be disposed of improperly, because the serious consequences of improper disposal are not always immediately obvious. Many people pour household hazardous substances down the drain, flush them down the toilet, pour them into storm sewers or onto the ground, or just put them out with the trash. However, doing so can be very dangerous. Improperly disposed HHW can corrode plumbing and cause serious damage to septic systems; contaminate sewage or wastewater treatment systems; pollute bodies of water or contaminate soil and groundwater; expose sanitation workers to the risk of inhaling toxic substances; and cause fires or explosions.
How should HHW be disposed of?
Communities all across the United States have instituted household hazardous waste disposal or collection programs to make it easier for everyone to safely dispose of HHW. Typically, most materials can be taken to the appropriate environmental depot or recycling facility. Some materials, like batteries and e-waste, can either be taken to retailers for recycling or to specially designated collection sites.
For more information on your local HHW collection program, you can contact the environmental health, solid waste, or public works department in your city or county for more information on what wastes can be recycled in your area. You can also contact programs such as the National Recycling Hotline at 1-800- CLEANUP.
How can HHW risks be reduced?
While proper disposal of HHW is the biggest step you can take to ensure the safety of your household and your environment, there are a number of other best practices that can minimize the risk of health problems or other dangers arising from HHW use.
One of the biggest risks from HHW occurs because it is so easy to accumulate in the home. In the US, the average household generates more than 20 pounds of HHW every year, but as much as 100 pounds can accumulate over time. Sometimes, these dangerous substances can be present in a household for years, and are only disposed of when the residents do an extensive cleanout or move out. You can reduce the amount of HHW you accumulate in your home by purchasing only the amount you need. In some cases, you can reuse products by donating the unused portions to friends, family, or community organizations.
Where possible, look for products that are either nonhazardous alternatives to hazardous products, or that contain less harmful ingredients. Carefully reading the labels will help you learn what dangerous substances the products contain and will help you make alternative choices.
When using a HHW product, be sure to properly follow its instructions for use. Do not remove labels from any HHW product, and always be sure to leave HHW products in their original containers so they can be properly identified and treated. Never mix a hazardous product with any other products.