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Your home generates hazardous waste—here's how to dispose of it

Safer alternatives and tips for reducing potential harm

A propane tank, a car battery, a gasoline container and a plastic solvent jug are lined up against a weathered fence. Credit: Getty Images / NoDerog

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As anyone managing a household knows, common products we use for upkeep may have a dangerous side. Many items, like cleaners and paint, come in packaging with paragraphs of warning labels and directions for safe use.

Let’s get to know some of these items better, and determine if the danger they represent are worth the risk—as well as some easy alternatives and how to properly dispose of them when they’re spent.

What is household hazardous waste?

The EPA considers some everyday household products “household hazardous waste” (HHW) if they can catch fire, react violently, explode, corrode or are toxic. Common examples of household hazardous waste include:

  • Motor oil
  • Automobile batteries
  • Paints and solvents
  • Cleaners
  • Drain openers
  • Pesticides
  • Compressed gas tanks (i.e. propane or oxygen)
  • Medications

What’s the worst that can happen?

With a cursory glance at that list, you’re probably familiar with some of the hazards they represent. Even the most benign item there carries a warning label with contact info for a poison control center.

But, exactly how dangerous is dangerous? The consequences of improper use and disposal can be helpful to keep in mind, to remind us exactly why we’re taking precautions to begin with—they might even help motivate you to recycle more often than you already do.

Let's look at some of the harm that can be caused by just a few of the more common household hazardous wastes.

Oil

Oil on wet asphalt, showcasing its opalescent sheen.
Credit: Getty Images / bradtzou

Even a small amount of oil that makes its way into the water table can pollute millions of gallons of drinking water.

Oil is one of the most common forms of household hazardous waste, as many of us own cars that require frequent oil changes in order to remain operational. Oil is insoluble, slow to break down, sticks to just about everything, and is one of the major sources of water contamination.

The used oil from just one oil change can contaminate one million gallons of fresh water. That’s a year’s supply of drinking water for 50 people—and as it takes time to process water to get it to sufficient potability, we only have so many millions of gallons of fresh water available at any given time.

Obviously, your one mismanaged oil change isn’t causing damage anywhere near the scale of, say, an oil pipeline rupture, but that doesn’t mean it can’t still cause significant damage on a smaller scale.

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Medication

A hand reaches into frame, holding several blister packs of pills over the mouth of an open trash can.
Credit: Getty Images / ahirao_photo

Before throwing out medications, be sure to mix them up with undesirable garbage and then seal them in a disposable container.

Medications are safe for the person to whom they’re prescribed, but they may be toxic for other people—and that goes double for local wildlife.

Flushing medications down the drain can allow those compounds to enter the water table. Tossing old pills in the garbage allows them to be consumed by wildlife, neighborhood pets, or even curious children.

Batteries

A broken cell phone sits on a charred surface, its battery is popped out, warped, and burned.
Credit: Getty Images / Ivan Marjanovic

Though lithium-ion batteries are notorious for starting fires, any battery can cause a problem if improperly disposed of.

Many batteries—especially lithium-ion batteries—can become a fire hazard if they are broken, bent, or crushed. Automotive batteries can contain sulfuric acid and lead, neither of which are safe to handle.

According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization, blood lead levels of 10 μg/dL or higher is enough to cause health problems. That’s just 0.0000001 grams per liter. It’s a dangerously toxic substance. You definitely don’t want a car battery’s worth of it leaching into your town’s water table.

How to safely manage household hazardous waste

If you want to avoid the risks associated with household hazardous waste, it is important to monitor the use, storage, and disposal of potentially hazardous substances. That means taking the time to do the research to figure out the best ways to dispose of different types of waste, which can vary on a state-to-state basis.

Here are some best practices for reducing the harm that your household hazardous waste could cause:

  • Follow all instructions on your product’s labels for proper use, storage, and disposal.
  • Keep hazardous products in their original containers, with their original safety labels. Other containers can corrode and spill; unlabeled containers can be misused or misplaced more easily.
  • Never mix household hazardous waste with other products. Many of these are highly reactive, and the wrong combination can create an explosion, or a harmful gas, or a host of other issues you don’t want.
  • Even empty containers can still be hazardous due to the residual chemicals inside.
  • For medications, take advantage of local drug take-back programs, or mix them with other garbage that’s undesirable to animals, and place them in a sealed container before throwing them out.

Reducing household hazardous waste in your home

Several natural cleaners are lined up, including a container of baking soda, a lemon, and some scrubbing implements.
Credit: Getty Images / Anna Ostanina

Many natural cleaners can do almost as good a job as the more volatile options—they may just require more scrubbing.

The first R of “reduce, reuse, recycle” is often one of the best strategies to mitigate harm. While household hazardous wastes are widely used because they’re often stronger than the alternative, sometimes a weaker alternative is still strong enough to get the job done—if with a little more elbow grease.

Nowadays, just about every product category has options available that are more environmentally friendly, and those products aren’t exactly shy about that fact. If you’re shopping for something that’s considered an household hazardous waste, it’s often worthwhile to give the “green” option a shot—it may be good enough to work on what you’re dealing with at a dramatically reduced cost to the environment.

Here are some easy substitutes you can use in your home:

  • Drain Cleaner — Use a plunger or plumber's snake
  • Glass Cleaner — Mix one tablespoon of vinegar or lemon juice in one quart of water; spray on and use newspaper to dry
  • Furniture Polish — Mix one teaspoon of lemon juice in one pint of mineral or vegetable oil
  • Rug Deodorizer — Sprinkle on baking soda, wait 15 minutes, and vacuum
  • Silver Polish — Boil two to three inches of water in a shallow pan with a sheet of aluminum foil and one teaspoon each of salt and baking soda. Submerge the silver, boil for two to three minutes, and wipe away the tarnish. Repeat if necessary.
  • Mothballs — Cedar chips, lavender flowers, rosemary, mints or white peppercorns

Small steps now can avoid larger problems later

Keep in mind that, while there may not be apparent and immediate repercussions from, say, just pouring waste down the drain or throwing it out with the rest of your trash, it also means that by the time harm is caused it’s going to be much more subtle, pervasive, and difficult to correct.

In many cases, you’re literally poisoning the well—or at least causing problems at the nearest wastewater treatment facility.

These tips can help avoid the worst of those problems, but there’s always more to do: Proper waste disposal is vital for maintaining a healthy society.

Check with your local environmental, health or solid waste agency for more information on household hazardous waste management options in your area. If your community doesn’t have a year-round collection system for household hazardous waste, there may be designated days for collection. If neither of those options are available, local businesses may be: Your local garage or mechanic, for example, might be able to accept used motor oil for recycling.

If your local area doesn’t have a recycling program, you can always contact your local representatives to inquire about starting some up, or search online for a quick how-to and get it done yourself. Many municipalities or housing associations can provide resources or outline the necessary steps you can take to get a recycling program off the ground.

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