One of the most controversial subjects of our time is hazardous waste. Where it goes has been central to many long legal battles. Often, people forget that every household contributes to hazardous waste.

Individually, the waste that is hazardous may seem insignificant, but in the aggregate….Picture, for example, a city of 50,000; if every household contributes an average of five gallons of hazardous material to the solid waste stream each year, there would be over 250,000 gallons of waste each year which would convert to roughly 41 1/3 tons of hazardous waste per year. Whether cleansers, paints, batteries or motor oil, household hazardous waste should be of grave concern to all citizens.

Each person has options available to them for reducing their dependency on hazardous materials, using less, and careful disposal. This fact sheet will briefly discuss the current “best” means of disposing of household hazardous waste.

Step One: Read the Label
Some hazardous materials indicate proper disposal techniques on their labels. Unfortunately, these are in a minority and some of the containers that do indicate disposal techniques fail to go far enough. If disposal directions are not present on the label of a material known to be hazardous, the label will indicate contents, solubility, or corrosive/reactive potential through the warnings or cautions on the container.

These warnings could include the following:

  • “Wear gloves” is a sign of corrosive or dermally toxic substances.
  • “Do not store near heat or open flame” suggests ignitability.
  • “Do not store near…” indicates reactive qualities of the material.
  • “Use only in the well ventilated room” is used for toxic fumes and reactive chemicals.

These and similar clues on the label will present a wise consumer with information necessary for proper disposal of the material.

An important note: Even when a container is “empty,” it is rarely “empty” of all chemicals. There is some liquid that the pump won’t spray and there is nearly always chemical residual on the sides and bottom of the container. Careful attention to disposal is imperative.

Step Two: Use and Reuse as Much as Possible

Often, there’s just that “little bit” leftover from a job and it does not seem to be enough to bother saving. What to do? Attempt to use all of any hazardous material. If you don’t need it, perhaps a neighbor might.

Some solvents and cleaners (like paint thinner) can be reused–store the cleaner in a covered jar and when the paint has settled, strain and reuse (see below for the disposal of the sludge).

Some hazardous materials are recyclable; motor oil and fuel oils are often collected by service stations for filtering and reuse. Although the complete use of a product is wise, give leftover products to others only if the material is in its original container with the label intact. Any “precautionary” information that may have accompanied the container should also be given to the new user.

Step Three: Select Disposal Approach

  • First and foremost, never burn or dump any hazardous wastes on the ground.
  • Do not dispose of any hazardous material “down the sink” unless you are sure it can safely be disposed into the sewer system. “Down the sink” includes letting hazardous materials run down the sewer system (draining an auto’s oil into the gutter system or excessive water runoff from a pesticide-treated yard) or down the toilet. If you have a septic tank, additional care must be taken.
  • Avoid burying any containers or leftover chemicals.
  • Do not mix hazardous wastes and do not collect containers and chemicals to dispose of them at one time.
  • Solidify any liquid wastes. This involves using an absorbent material (sawdust, kitty litter, paper towels, rags) to soak up a liquid hazardous material. Do not solidify more than one chemical at a time. Using gloves, sweep or dispose of the material into a plastic bag, and then dispose of with other household garbage.
  • Use this same process with any “empty” container other than an aerosol container. It is often good to “open” a non- aerosol container with wire cutters or scissors and air-dry; wearing gloves, swab the inside before disposal. Dispose of the rags or paper towels after they have aired outside.
  • Latex paint can be solidified by exposing the paint to air. When dried, the paint and container can be disposed of with household refuse. Wrap empty containers in several layers of newspaper prior to disposal. This prevents environmental contamination and reactive potential.
  • With aerosol cans, turn the container upside down and depress the spray button, with the nozzle facing paper toweling, rags, or any absorbent surface. When the spray has lost pressure, wrap the can in several layers of newspaper and dispose of household refuse.
  • Some cleaners can be poured down a drain. If you have a septic tank, drain disposal should nearly always be avoided. If cleansers are designed to be used with water in a home or in sinks, showers, toilet bowls, and tubs, the material is probably draining disposable. Let the water run, rinse the container, and slowly pour the water/chemical down the drain. Allow the water to continue running after the chemical is gone. Allow the container to air dry (or swab with paper towels), wrap in newspaper and dispose of in the household refuse.
  • Antifreeze can be flushed down the toilet if connected to a sewer system.
  • Pesticides, herbicides, oil paints, paint cleaners, and oil and transmission fluids should never be flushed into a water system or disposed of on-ground or put into household refuse.
  • Automobile batteries should never be added to a home’s garbage. Some communities have hazardous waste material collection systems for some of these wastes.

In many cases, disposal is difficult at best and the preferred solution is to

  1. use an alternative material
  2. recycle where possible (oil and batteries) or
  3. use the material completely, then solidify residual and dispose of the container as described above.

In our society, hazardous waste is guaranteed. We use many chemicals daily at home, at play, and at work. Wise purchase, use, storage, and disposal of necessary chemicals can greatly reduce the negative environmental impact of these chemicals. Finding effective alternatives to their use avoids the creation of hazardous wastes from the home.

Reprinted from Disposal Of Household Hazardous Materials by Joe E. Heimlich