Last updated February 2021
It’s lurking out in your garage and underneath the kitchen sink. Household hazardous waste—unused paint, solvents, motor oil, herbicides, pesticides, pool chemicals, automotive chemicals, drain cleaners, batteries, and more. It’s stuff that accumulates and clutters because you don’t know how to dispose of it properly. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that the average household has amassed 100 pounds of it.
The good news is if you still possess your dangerous goods, that means you haven’t sent it to a landfill, incinerator, or poured it down a drain—actions that create pollution and put sanitation workers at risk of injury. And besides being a bad idea, depending on where you live, improperly disposing of household hazardous waste can be illegal.
In general, if a product is labeled with “Caution,” “Warning,” “Danger,” or “Poison,” it deserves special handling. Examples include:
- Paint (both latex and oil-based), varnish, stains, and polyurethane
- Home, lawn, and garden chemicals used for pest, insect, and weed control
- Anything containing mercury—old fluorescent light bulbs and tubes, thermometers, thermostats, and barometers
- Gasoline and most car-care products—used motor oil, transmission fluid, brake fluid, antifreeze, windshield wiper fluid, gear oil, and gas additives
- Flammable cleaning solvents such as kerosene, turpentine, varsol, mineral spirits, parts cleaners, floor strippers, rug cleaners, and spot removers
- Adhesives and hobby chemicals
- Nail polish and removers
- Corrosives such as muriatic acid and lye, oven and drain cleaners
- Swimming pool chemicals
- Propane tanks
Municipalities operate drop-off sites or sponsor special drop-off days. To find one near you, visit Earth911.com, which maintains a database of drop-off sites plus their contact information, days and hours of operation, and which materials they accept.
Before you go, call ahead or check the facility’s website 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.
Unlike compact fluorescent light bulbs, which contain a small amount of mercury and should be treated as potentially hazardous, LED bulbs can be safely thrown in the trash or recycled. If your municipality doesn’t recycle LEDs, drop them off during your next trip to retailers such as Home Depot, IKEA, or Lowe’s, which offer bulb recycling bins.
Many retailers accept single-use and rechargeable batteries for recycling or proper disposal. While rechargeable batteries are overall better for the environment than single-use ones, rechargeables often contain toxic heavy metals (such as nickel, cadmium, and mercury)—so don’t toss them in the trash. Find nearby recycling drop-off sites on Earth911.com and Call2Recycle.org.
You can bring car batteries to most household hazardous waste drop-off facilities, but car battery retailers also accept them for recycling; there may be a small disposal charge.
Many disposal and recycling 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.
When electronics become obsolete and worthless, don’t make the mistake of simply tossing them in the trash. Most contain a nightmarish mix of hazardous chemicals: lead, mercury, lithium, cadmium, and even-more-terrible-sounding materials that, if not handled properly, can pollute the earth or harm people. Click here for advice on how to safely get rid of unwanted devices.