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Watershed
Restoration
THE CLEAN WATER BOOK:
CHOICES FOR WATERSHED PROTECTION
     
CHAPTER 9:
HOUSEHOLD HAZARDOUS WASTE
 

Many products used at home, such as soaps and detergents, are meant to be washed down the drain. These products are biodegradable and, if the wastewater from your home is properly treated, they pose no problem to the environment. However, many products commonly found on kitchen and bathroom shelves are toxic to people and the environment. They should never be washed down the drain. These common household products include oven cleaners, floor wax, furniture polish, pesticides and spot removers.

Check the labels of products for toxic components such as the following: lye, phenols, petroleum distillates and trichlorobenzene. Product chemicals pose a potential threat to human health if improperly used. They also present real environmental hazards when it comes to disposal.

The term "household hazardous waste" or "HHW" refers to leftover household products that contain materials that are toxic to humans, flammable, volatile, corrosive or which react with other substances to create hazardous materials. Since these products contain potentially hazardous ingredients, they require special care when you dispose of them. Improper disposal of HHWs can include pouring them down the drain, on the ground, into storm sewers, or in some cased putting them out with the trash. The dangers of such disposal methods might not be immediately obvious, but improper disposal of these waste can pollute the environment and pose a treat to human health.

 

REDUCING THE THREAT

In order to reduce this threat, each of us must think carefully about whether we need to use these hazardous substances around the house, how we can find safe, useful alternatives and how we can properly dispose of the waste when we use these products.

The best way to avoid disposal problems is to avoid purchasing products with toxic ingredients in the first place. It is often possible to use an alternative, less toxic method to clean or polish. For example, ovens can be cleaned by applying table salt to spills, then scrubbing with steel wool and a solution of baking soda and water. You can make a good furniture polish by combining a teaspoon of lemon juice with a pint of either linseed or mineral oil. Clogged drains can sometimes be cleaned with a plunger or a metal plumber's snake, instead of toxic chemical cleaners. Less toxic enzyme-based products for sluggish drains are now available on store shelves.

When you feel that it is absolutely necessary to use a household hazardous product, some cautions should be observed.

  • Buy only as much of the product as you need, so that you don't have to worry about leftovers.
  • Read the label and use the product only as directed.
  • Never apply more than the directions recommend.

Some products become even more dangerous when mixed with others. For example, chlorine bleach mixed with ammonia can produce deadly chlorine gas. Protective clothing and rubber gloves may be necessary when using certain products. Also, good ventilation is a must.

Use and store products containing hazardous substances carefully to prevent any accidents at home and to keep them away from children. Never store hazardous products in food containers; keep them in their original containers and never remove labels. Corroding containers, however, require special handling. Call your local HHW Coordinator or fire department for instructions.

When leftovers remain, never mix HHW with other products. Incompatible products might react, ignite, or explode, and contaminated HHW might become unrecyclable. Remember to follow any instructions for use and disposal provided on product labels. Or contact your county's HHW Coordinator for disposal options in your community.

 

HOUSEHOLD CLEANERS

Household cleaners and polishes such as floor and furniture polishes can contain diethylene glycol, petroleum distillates or nitrobenzene, which are toxic and volatile. Consider reducing your purchase of products that contain hazardous ingredients. Learn about the use of alternative methods or products without hazardous ingredients for some common household needs.

For example, mixing 1 tablespoon of vinegar or lemon juice in 1 quart of water can make a safer window cleaner. Simply spray it on the windows and use a squeegee to wipe dry. Also, Borax, a naturally occurring mineral, is a good all-purpose cleaner and deodorizer. Less toxic products, such as citrus-based cleaners, are progressively appearing on the market.

Use non-phosphate detergents for washing your clothing and cars. Although not classified as a hazardous substance, when an excessive amount of phosphorus (an important plant nutrient) gets into our waterways, it can lead to hypoxia (low oxygen levels) which can cause fish kills and other ecological problems. Aside from lawn and garden products, pesticides are found in many household cleaners in order to kill bacteria and disinfect. To determine if a cleaner does contain pesticides, look for the EPA Registration Number on the label. Substitute alternatives when possible. If you do use pesticides, be certain to use them correctly and dispose of them properly. Be sure to read the label and follow the instructions carefully.

Several pool chemicals are used to sanitize, clean, or balance the water in swimming pools, spas and hot tubs. Pool chemicals involved in fire or toxic vapor releases are likely to include those that add chlorine or a chlorine ion to the pool water for bacteria control. Other pool chemicals are used to control the growth of algae or fungus, and to adjust the acidity or alkalinity (pH control) to clarify the water.

 

HOME MAINTENANCE PRODUCTS

Household maintenance products such as enamel and oil-based paints contain toxic and flammable hydrocarbons. Latex or water-based paints are less toxic alternatives. Empty containers may be disposed with regular household trash. Latex paint cans and other containers should be allowed to dry before being placed in the trash, if possible. Dispose of partially full containers through your county HHW Program.

Among the most toxic household products are those used for home repair and maintenance. Paints, preservatives, strippers, brush cleaners and solvents contain a wide range of chemicals, some of which are suspected carcinogens. These products should never be put in sewer or septic systems. In other words, they should never be poured down the drain.

Products like thinners and solvents also contain volatile organic compounds. Keep in mind that they are flammable and can be absorbed through the skin. They should be in closed and labeled glass or metal containers. Some plastic containers may deteriorate in contact with solvents. Thinners and solvents must be stored away from sources of sparks or heat.

If any of these products are unused, give them away to someone who can use them. Check with your municipality to see if there is a municipal paint collection program that accepts these products. Otherwise, take them to a HHW facility or save them for the hazardous waste collection day.

There are many kinds of glues. The safest choices are white glue, library paste, glue sticks and yellow glue. Users are urged to select these whenever possible for their needs. Other adhesives may contain solvents and additional toxic chemicals. If adhesive cannot be used up, it should be taken to a HHW collection site. Another alternative is to dry it by finding a well-ventilated area away from children and pets and sources of heat or flames.

 

THERMOMETERS

Many households have oral or rectal glass mercury thermometers in their medicine closet. When safely encased in thermometers, elemental mercury, a silver colored metal known to be toxic to humans, is not a threat. When mishandled, broken thermometers can become a potentially toxic source of mercury in the home. Consider purchasing alcohol-based or digital thermometers.

Other potential sources of household mercury are cooking thermometers, fluorescent light bulbs and home heating system thermostats. There have been technological improvements, which have led to the replacement of the mercury in many of these devices with electrical components. Fluorescent lamps, including energy saving compact fluorescents, contain mercury. Whenever a lamp breaks, it release mercury into the air. This is toxic to the human nervous system and can poison wildlife.

When mercury enters water bodies, it undergoes a natural chemical process and is converted to a more toxic form - methylmercury. This builds up in the tissues of fish and animals, increasing in concentration as it moves up through the food chain, which results in high levels of mercury in some of the foods we eat. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection issues annual freshwater fish consumption advisories because of high mercury concentrations in fish.

 

HOME MEDICAL WASTE

Home medical waste includes expired medicines or unwanted pharmaceuticals that could be harmful to children and adults. Unused pharmaceuticals found in the trash may be stolen for unregulated use. These hazards may affect other people who come in contact with trash. Antibiotics and anti-bacterial soaps poured down the drain can kill beneficial microbes and bacteria in septic systems. Sharp objects such as needles, syringes and lancelets should be kept in secure containers out of reach of children.

In areas with sanitary sewers, unused pharmaceuticals and medicines, except cancer treatment and radioactive drugs, may be destabilized by dissolving in a small amount of water, then flushed in the toilet or placed in a sealed container in the trash. Cancer treatment drugs or radioactive medicines should be tightly wrapped and placed in the trash. Contact your local sewerage authority for more information.

The impact of unused pharmaceuticals and other medicines in our waterways is a growing concern. Some research suggests that it may have deleterious health effects on both humans and other animals.

 

ELECTRONICS AND E-CYCLING

Consumer electronics have revolutionized our lifestyle with computers, printers, copiers, telephones, radios, TVs, audio equipment, VCRs, stereos and cell phones. Our growing dependence on electronics products both at home and in the workplace has given rise to a new environmental challenge: electronic waste, or e-waste.

Consumer electronics are any appliance used in the home or business that includes circuitry. Consumer electronics includes the components and subassemblies that collectively make up the electronic products. When individually broken down, this group includes batteries, mercury switches, capacitors, PCBs, cadmium-plated parts and plastics containing heavy metals.

As we become more dependent on electronic products to make life more convenient, the stockpiles of used, obsolete products grow. In 2004, the National Safety Council projected that nearly 250 million computers would become obsolete within five years and mobile phones would be discarded at a rate of 130 million per year. Electronics are a fast growing part of America's trash. Over 3.2 million tons of electronic waste is annually laid to rest in landfills.

Computer monitors and older TV picture tubes contain an average of four pounds of lead and require special handling at the end of their lives. In addition to lead, electronics can contain chromium, cadmium, mercury, beryllium, nickel, zinc and brominated flame-retardants. This has resulted in a new environmental challenge: safe and resource-wise management of electronic waste. E-cycling is the reusing or recycling of these consumer electronics and it is one way to reduce e-waste.

Electronics can create an environmental hazard if they are disposed of improperly but those same hazardous components can be valuable materials to be recycled and reused in the demanufacturing process. E-cycling not only reuses valuable resources but also protects our water resources.

Extending the life of your electronics or donating your most up-to-date and working electronics can save you money and saves valuable resources. Safely recycling outdated electronics can promote the safe management of hazardous components and supports the recovery and use of valuable materials.

Practice e-cycling by donating or recycling your computer, cell phones, TV, radio clock and other similar items. This will cut the amount of e-waste reaching landfills. Find facilities in your community that can help you to efficiently discard/recycle your unwanted items. Consumer electronics should not be disposed of in the trash. They should be brought to either a charity for reuse or to a consumer electronics recycler for reuse or disposal. Contact your county solid waste coordinator or visit EPA's web site at www.epa.gov/epaoswer/hazwaste/recycle/ecycling/index.htm for more information.

 

BATTERIES

Laptops, portable music players, toys, cell phones, calculators, power tools, shavers, and electronic toothbrushes are just some of the things in our daily lives that need batteries to function. The EPA estimates that more than 350 million rechargeable batteries are purchased annually in the United States. Batteries are a unique product comprised of heavy metals and other elements that make things portable. Some of these toxic heavy metals include nickel cadmium, alkaline, mercury, nickel metal hydride and lead acid. It is these elements that can threaten our environment if not properly discarded.

Batteries may produce the following potential problems or hazards:

  • Pollute the lakes and streams as the metals vaporize into the air when burned.
  • Contribute to heavy metals that may potentially leach from solid waste landfills.
  • Expose the environment and water to lead and acid.
  • Contain strong corrosive acids.
  • May cause burns or danger to eyes and skin.

Household batteries are generally single use, and are also referred to as alkaline, carbon-zinc, lithium , silver-zinc and zinc air batteries. Collection and recycling of these batteries varies by community. Check with your community recycling facilities to determine your household battery recycling options.

Mercury reduction in alkaline batteries began in 1984 and continues today. Some batteries such as the alkaline battery have had about a 97% mercury reduction in the product. Newer alkaline batteries may contain about one-tenth the amount of mercury previously contained in the typical alkaline battery. Some alkaline batteries have zero-added mercury, and several mercury-free, heavy-duty carbon-zinc batteries are on the market.

Some landfills have ceased their battery recycling program because of the mercury reduction. When disposing of household alkaline batteries, it is best to check with your local and state recycling or HHW coordinator concerning the specifics of your program.

Nickel-Cadmium (NiCad) rechargeable batteries are commonly used in rechargeable appliances or as separate rechargeable batteries. All NiCad batteries are identified by the EPA as hazardous waste and must be recycled. Rechargeable batteries offer convenience and can serve to reduce the overall volume of batteries entering the waste. While all rechargeable batteries are recyclable, another alternative is to use power adapters that plug into electrical sockets.

Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMH) or Lithium-Ion are commonly used in laptops. They are considered non-hazardous waste, but do not contain elements that can be recycled.

Button cell batteries are commonly used in hearing aids, calculators and watches. These contain silver, mercury and other elements that are hazardous to the environment. They should be treated as HHW.

Automotive and sealed lead batteries should be recycled, as they contain hazardous materials and elements that can be reused. Automotive repair shops are required to accept old batteries in exchange for the purchase of a new battery.

New Jersey prohibits the disposal of mercuric oxide batteries, nickel-cadmium and sealed lead rechargeable batteries. Manufacturers are required to accept the financial responsibility for the environmentally sound collection, transportation, recycling or proper disposal of used dry cell batteries; and that environmentally sound methods of managing used dry cell batteries include county recycling or HHW collection programs.

The Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation (RBRC) is a non-profit, public service organization created by the rechargeable power industry and dedicated to the recycling of rechargeable batteries. Please visit their web site at www.RBRC.org for additional information.

 

DISPOSING OF HOUSEHOLD HAZARDOUS WASTE

The kinds of HHW described in this chapter should, in general, never be disposed of "down the drain." Your drain leads to either a home septic system or a municipal treatment plant, neither of which is designed to completely remove toxic chemicals from wastewater. Some of the toxins will pass through the treatment process and end up in streams, rivers, ground water or other water body.

If you have a septic system, be extremely careful not to dispose of toxic chemicals through the system. It can mean direct contamination of your own well and those of your neighbors. It can also cause your septic system to malfunction. (See the separate chapter on Septic Systems.)

The products described in this chapter should never be poured on the ground where they can contaminate ground water, or poured into storm drains where they will enter storm sewers, which generally lead to a nearby water body. Other products described in this chapter, such as batteries, cell phones and computers pose a threat to water quality because of the high concentration of heavy metals that they contain. While you would not pour them down the drain, disintegrating e-waste could leach metals into local water bodies. They should be kept out of landfills and be recycled or reused.

Every county in New Jersey employs a HHW Coordinator to encourage and assist its residents to manage HHW in a safe, convenient manner. A few counties have recycling facilities that accept HHW year round. Other counties hold special HHW Disposal Days during the year when residents are encouraged to bring whatever HHW they have been accumulating in their homes to a central location where they are sorted and either sent for recycling or proper disposal.

You can also recycle you unwanted household chemicals by giving them to neighbors or local institutions that can use them. You might initiate an exchange program in your neighborhood in which neighbors circulate a list of all unwanted paints, solvents, cleansers and so forth.

For many of these hazardous materials, unless they can be recycled, proper disposal means incineration at a very high-temperature in a specially licensed facility. The cost of such disposal may be several times as much as the original purchase price.

Whenever in doubt about how to dispose of a HHW, call your local HHW Coordinator for instructions on proper disposal. Follow their instructions and also read product labels for disposal directions to reduce the risk of products exploding, igniting, leaking, mixing with other chemicals, or posing other hazards on the way to a disposal facility. Even empty containers of HHW can pose hazards because of the residual chemicals that might remain.

For more information on how you can safely dispose of HHW at an environmentally friendly facility near you, visit the web site of the Association of New Jersey Household Hazardous Waste Coordinators at www.njhazwaste.com/index.htm

 

WHAT YOU CAN DO

Here are some general rules of thumb for using and disposing of household hazardous chemicals:

  • Use alternative, less harmful products whenever possible.
  • Buy only as much as you need.
  • Read the label. Know what you are buying and what the potential hazards are. When you have a choice of products for a particular use, choose those products labeled CAUTION, as they are less hazardous than those labeled DANGER or WARNING.
  • Store products in their original containers so that the label can be referred to whenever the product is used.
  • If you do have leftover products, donate them to neighbors who can use them, recycle them if possible or dispose of them at an HHW facility.
  • Support efforts to implement and improve sound HHW recycling and disposal programs.
 
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Last Updated: June 8, 2012