Household Hazardous Waste

by Dave Kopel

If you want to "think globally and act locally," the best place to start is your own basement or cupboard -- because you, believe it or not, are a generator of hazardous waste.

How can it be that people who don't live in electroplating shops or oil refineries generate hazardous waste in their homes? The answer is that a large number of everyday household items --from mothballs to oven cleaner to drain cleaner to mercury batteries -- contain dangerous levels of toxic constituents.

True, you never see EPA raiding somebody's house and leading the family away in handcuffs because they flushed some liquid drain cleaner down the toilet. But that's because the federal hazardous waste law (the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act) contains a special exemption for household wastes. No matter how hazardous any particular household waste is, chemically speaking, it's exempt from the hazardous waste laws.

The household exemption makes sense from an administrative viewpoint, since EPA has enough trouble regulating American businesses, let alone regulating American households. At the same time, the household exemption creates a loophole by which literally millions of gallons of hazardous chemicals are dumped into America's surface water and ground water systems.

To reduce your own contribution to hazardous waste problems, there are two key steps. First, properly dispose of the hazardous materials you already have. Then, begin using non-hazardous alternatives, to the extent reasonably feasible.

Many city or county governments operate household hazardous waste collection stations. The collection station may be open one day a year, or year-round, depending on where you live. Calling your city or county department of health (or environmental department) will eventually yield information about household hazardous waste collection in your area -- provided that you have enough persistence to get put on hold, and transferred from one bureaucrat to another to another. Another good source of information about local hazardous waste collection is local chapters of environmental groups such as Sierra Club or the Environmental Defense Fund.

Once you've found out when and where the hazardous waste collection will take place, you can take all your left-over pesticides, solvent-based paints, wood preservatives, and other dangerous items (more listed below) to the collection agency to be safely disposed or recycled in special hazardous waste facilities. Even the empty cans that once contained these materials contain hazardous residues, so even empty cans should also be taken in for collection.

Quite often, you can avoid generating household hazardous wastes in the first place by substituting alternative products. The substitutes may work fine, or in some cases they may be inferior to the original hazardous product. After all, the reason that the hazardous products became popular in the first place was that they worked well. So substitution will probably be a process of trial and error.

Remember, though, that by giving up a particular household product, you not only reduce the hazardous waste stream, you also make your home safer for small children and pets who might accidentally ingest the hazardous material.

So what kind of products should you start to avoid, or start to handle more carefully?

Aerosols. Giving up aerosol deodorant sprays won't make the ozone layer any better. Ozone-destroying CFCs have been banned from most American consumer products since the late 1970s. But aerosol sprays are still highly flammable. Putting an aerosol spray can that isn't completely empty into a trash compactor or a combustion device (a fire) could cause a serious explosion. So make sure any aerosol product you throw out has been completely used up. And consider buying pump-spray products instead of aerosols next time.

Antifreeze for automobiles. There are no non-hazardous substitutes. If you have some leftover that you can't use, see if a local garage or service station will take it off your hands.

Auto batteries. The battery acid is highly corrosive. When buying a replacement battery, buy from a vendor who will take your old battery and have it recycled.

Automobile motor oil. Do not pour used oil down the sewer. One oil change's worth of used oil can contaminate thousands of gallons of water. If you change your own oil, collect the used oil, and take it to a local gas station for recycling. Recyclers can re-refine it into usable oil.

Chlorine bleach. This stuff can seriously damage your eyes if it contacts them. Never mix it with ammonia. As a substitute, try Borax, or non-chlorine bleach, or lemon juice.

Detergent. Liquid dishwashing detergent is much milder automatic dishwasher detergent. Think how angry all of Madge's manicure customers would have been if Madge had soaked their fingers in automatic dishwasher detergent, rather than a liquid! If the liquid will fit your needs, try it.

Drain cleaners. These are extremely corrosive. As a substitute, try a plunger, a plumber's snake, or a combination of vinegar and baking soda followed by boiling water. And keep the sink strainer in good condition, to avoid problems in the first place.

Insecticides, pest sprays, rat poison, etc. These products work by poisoning small animals, so it stands to reason that big animals (people) should try and minimize, when reasonably possible, their contact with these poisons. You can reduce the need to use poisons -- making them into a last resort instead of your only pest control tool -- through the technique of Integrated Pest Management (IPM).

Integrated pest management, which is used successfully in Nicaragua and elsewhere to reduce reliance on expensive and destructive pesticides, simply applies common sense to pest control issues. If you don't want insects or rodents around, be scrupulously careful not to leave them any food supply. Figure out how the varmints get in and out of your house, kitchen, or yurt, and block the entrances. Use mechanical traps to further control access.

Once you've done everything reasonably possible to make your environment inhospitable to bugs and rodents, their population will drop rapidly. Pesticides and poisons -- the least toxic the better -- can them come into play as the final, perhaps necessary element in your anti-pest strategy.

An excellent book for persons seeking to control any kinds of pests (except human ones) is Common Sense Guide to Pest Control, published by Taunton Books. It's an expensive hardcover, but can save you plenty of money by showing how to avoid unnecessary spending on commercial poisons and exterminators.

If you do end up using pesticides and poisons, store the leftovers very carefully, and get rid of them at your community's next household hazardous waste day.

Metal polishes come in two basic varieties: mildly poisonous, and very poisonous. If you use them, make sure you're in a well-ventilated room. Try a vinegar and salt substitute, or baking soda with a damp sponge on an unimportant part of the metal, and see if these non-toxic substitutes will work for your.

Mothballs are also poisonous (that's why they work). Cedar chips make good substitutes.

Oil-based paints are flammable, and are bad to breath when painting. If it all possible, use latex/water based paints instead. If oil-based paints are really necessary, buy only as much as you need; if you still end up with leftovers, save them for community household hazardous waste day. Pregnant women should be especially careful about avoid the fumes, which may persist for weeks after the paint has been applied.

Wood cleaners and polishes have fumes which irritate the eyes. Try lemon oil or beeswax instead.

And how to store your toxics until hazardous waste collection day comes? Get a plastic container with a lid (say a 5-gallon bucket). Fill the container halfway with (unused) kitty litter. Put the hazardous substance in its own original container into the kitty litter-filled plastic bucket. Stick the bucket lid on, mark the plastic container clearly, and keep it far away from children, pets, and anyone else who might ingest it. Corrosion will be reduced if the container is stored on a shelf, rather than on a concrete or dirt floor.

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