Last updated in Summer 2015
It’s out there in the garage. It’s down there in the basement. It’s under there below the sink. It’s the household hazardous waste that accumulates and clutters because you don’t know exactly what to do with it.
You’re not alone. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that the average household amasses 100 pounds of paint, solvents, used motor oil, herbicides, pesticides, pool chemicals, automotive chemicals, drain cleaners, batteries, and other household hazardous waste.
The good news is if it’s in your basement, garage, or closet, the household hazardous waste hasn’t gone down your drain or storm sewer, or mixed in with other garbage at a landfill. Consider that:
- Volatile chemicals can mix with one another at any point along a path to a landfill, presenting a risk to workers along the way.
- Hazardous household wastes that reach the landfill can leach out, contaminating groundwater.
- The used oil in an average oil change has the potential to pollute one million gallons of fresh water—a year’s supply for 50 people, according to the EPA.
- Waste poured down the drain taxes water treatment facilities and septic tanks; waste poured down storm sewers can be, in some cases, discharged untreated, into lakes, rivers and streams.
Apart from being a bad idea, depending on your municipality, improperly disposing of household hazardous wastes can be illegal.
In general, if a product is labeled with “Caution,” “Warning,” “Danger,” or “Poison,” it deserves special handling. A list of candidates for a household hazardous waste facility follows:
- Oil-based paint, varnish, stains, and polyurethane;
- Home, lawn, and garden chemicals used for pest, insect, and weed control;
- Mercury-containing waste, including fluorescent light bulbs and tubes, thermometers, thermostats, and barometers;
- Old gasoline;
- Used motor oil, transmission fluid, brake fluid, antifreeze, windshield wiper fluid, gear oil, gas additives, and most car care products;
- Car batteries;
- Flammable cleaning solvents such as kerosene, turpentine, varsol, mineral spirits, parts cleaners, floor strippers, rug cleaners, and spot removers;
- Household batteries;
- Adhesives and hobby chemicals;
- Corrosives such as muriatic acid, and oven or drain cleaners with lye;
- Swimming pool chemicals;
- Photo chemicals; and
- Propane tanks.
Municipalities across the area operate drop-off sites or sponsor special drop-off days in rotating locations. To find a facility or drop-off day near you, visit Earth911.com. Enter “HHW” and your Zip Code in the search fields and a new page will appear that shows drop-off sites in your area, along with contact information, days and hours of operation, and materials accepted. You can also call 800-253-2687 to receive the same information via an automated service.
Before you go, call ahead to confirm that the site accepts the materials you intend to bring. Note that facilities typically accept waste only from residents of their municipality, so bring a driver’s license or other identification. These sites do not accept waste from businesses.
You can bring car batteries to most household hazardous waste drop-off facilities, but car battery retailers routinely recycle your old battery, and will accept a single battery for recycling. There may be a small charge if you are not purchasing a new battery.
Many retailers accept single-use and rechargeable batteries for recycling or proper disposal. Visit Earth911.com to find battery recycling locations by Zip Code.
Rechargeable batteries are a good idea because they reduce the number of batteries that need to be recycled, or that might find their way to landfills. But some rechargeables contain the most troublesome substances (nickel cadmium, for example). You can find a nearby recycling drop-off site for your rechargeable batteries—as well as old cell phones—at the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation (RBRC) website.
Many locations do not accept latex paint because it is water-soluble and does not present the hazard that oil-based paints do. However, latex products still contain pigments and other chemicals; do not empty excess latex paint down your household drain or a storm sewer. If there is less than a quarter can left, leave the can open and let it evaporate. If there is more, use an absorbent—a commercial paint hardener or cat litter—to solidify the remaining paint. You can then dispose of the paint can with your normal trash.