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How to Dispose of Household Hazardous Waste

Most cities make it easy to dispose of hazardous wastes

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household hazardous waste

It's easy to accumulate lots of household hazardous waste.

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Hazardous waste in my house? No way -- I don't live in a nuclear reactor!

Most people are surprised at the amount of household hazardous waste they've accumulated in their homes, but many ordinary household products are toxic, corrosive, ignitable or reactive materials that need to be handled, stored and disposed of very carefully. The average American home has as much as 100 pounds of hazardous materials in it, and the EPA estimates that we generate as much as 1.6 million tons of household hazardous waste each year.

What kind of hazardous wastes are you talking about? My collection of shrunken heads?

If your shrunken heads were treated with formaldehyde, they actually might count as hazardous materials, since formaldehyde is believed to cause cancer. But people with more conventional hobbies still accumulate bug spray, drain cleaner, old paint, used motor oil, pool chemicals, old lighter fluid, nail polish, old batteries, rat poison, unused electronic items, compact fluorescent lights (CFLs), nail polish remover and dozens of other ordinary consumer products that are hazardous to people and the environment.

Those things aren't all hazardous, are they? Come on -- light bulbs?

Many of the items listed as hazardous materials are flammable, and can catch fire easily -- in some cases, they can be explosive, too. Some hazardous consumer products, like nail polish remover, bug spray and rat poison are highly toxic to children and pets. And CFLs contain mercury, a potentially deadly, cancer-causing agent.

Yikes -- I have all that stuff in my house. I guess I should throw it out.

Not so fast: Those hazardous items can't be thrown in the garbage or down the drain -- it just ends up in a river or in groundwater somewhere else. And if you're on a septic tank, those chemicals can kill the bugs in your tank that process your septic waste. Even if it ends up in a landfill, it can leach out and get into drinking water supplies. Finally, if your trash hauler finds any haz-mat items in your garbage can, there can be serious fines.

Well then, what should I do with it? Bury it in the backyard?

Not advisable, unless you want your yard to be declared a hazardous waste site. (And if you combine some chemicals, you could create an explosive or corrosive compound, so don't mix them together!) Instead, you can gather up all your old CFL light bulbs, cans of paint, motor oil and other household hazardous waste and take them down to your local haz-mat disposal center once a year, like during spring cleaning.

Where's my hazardous waste disposal center? The local dump?

Maybe -- but first, check with the good folks at Earth911.com, who will tell you exactly where your local haz-mat center is, and even provide a phone number. Be aware that many of these facilities are open to local residents only (they don't want people trucking in their waste from out-of-town), and some have limits regarding what they will and will not accept, so call first. Other communities sponsor annual haz-mat drives with convenient drop-off locations. Call your neighborhood trash collector or public works office for local options.

What a great idea. But how did I accumulate all this hazardous waste in the first place?

It's easy to find your house filled with toxic and hazardous material by just shopping like an ordinary person. (Most of us have had a clogged drain at some point.) But there are safer options available for most hazardous products, like low-VOC paints, LED light bulbs, and safer insect repellents. The best way to control hazardous materials in your house? Don't buy them in the first place.
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