The HHW Dilemma: Lots of Waste, Nobody to Collect

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There was probably a time in our lives, not too long ago, when we gave little thought to the ingredients in many of our household products. The one thing we wanted, whether it was our paint, pesticides, oven cleaners or our drain cleaners, was for the products to work.

Perhaps there was an assumption that because we bought these items in a public store, they were safe as long as we didn’t ingest them or get them in our eyes.

What we now know, of course, is that many common household items contain ingredients that can not only be harmful to our bodies, but they also have the potential to contaminate the land, air and water on which we depend.

Such items are designated as Household Hazardous Wastes (HHW), and they are far more prevalent in homes than one might think.

Photo: In.gov

The U.S. EPA found that the air inside our homes is on average two to five times more polluted than the air outside. Photo: In.gov

What’s So Bad About HHW?

The U.S. EPA describes HHW as “leftover household products that contain corrosive, toxic, ignitable or reactive ingredients.” While anything with a big WARNING label on the container likely fits the bill, many other items also qualify as HHW.

In fact, the EPA estimates that between garages, closets and cluttered basements, the average American home can contain as much as 100 pounds of HHW.

Disposing of these items by pouring them down the drain can contaminate drinking water, as well as rivers and oceans. In addition, placing these items in landfills eventually leads to their ingredients, such as heavy metals and poisons, leaching into the ground or being incinerated and entering the air.

In light of these dangers, many cities and municipalities have developed collection programs for HHW. However, there are still many parts of the country that lack permanent local collection resources.

But fear not! We didn’t tell you about HHW just to scare you about the toxins lying around your house. There are still options for you to safely rid your home of your HHW.

An Ounce of Prevention

While it may sound obvious, the best way to keep you home clear of HHW is not to purchase it in the first place. While some products, such as antifreeze, do not seem to have easy substitutes, many household cleaners are phasing out more dangerous ingredients.

Companies such as Method and Seventh Generation make many cleaners and detergents that have no hazardous ingredients, and even Clorox has developed a green line of cleaning products called Green Works. Baking soda and vinegar, as well as citrus oils are each making a resurgence as people question the idea of keeping so many “fatal-if-swallowed” products under their sinks. Regardless of your home’s needs, check first to see if environmentally sound alternatives are available.

Photo: Theecolife.net

When purchasing your cleaning products, check for biodegradability, highly concentrated and if it's made from plants or other renewable resources. Photo: Theecolife.net

Know Your Waste

Before you contemplate disposing of your HHW, it will help to know what items in your home qualify. Purdue University has an excellent HHW Web site that takes you through a virtual house, room by room, and lists the typical harmful products found there. Categories to be wary of include:

  • Household cleaners – especially oven and drain cleaners
  • Auto fluids – such as anti-freeze, oil or other engine fluids
  • Paint products – especially varnishes and thinners
  • Pesticides – anything meant to kill pests is probably not great for people or pets either

Special Days Around the Country

Even in towns that do not have year-round collection programs, it is still possible to dispose of HHW. There are thousands of special collection days around the country, when it is possible to drop off your HHW at a local facility.

Most state environmental agencies provide information about special collection dates on their Web sites, or you can call to find out when and where the next collection is planned.

Frequency varies by location (anywhere from weekly to yearly), but if you can collect and store your HHW in a single location, it will be easy to drop off at the next event. Check out our recycling location database for HHW drop-off locations. The EPA also has a Web site with information and resources for starting your own local collection event.

Check With Local Businesses

The concept of product stewardship has made its way to many commercial businesses, both voluntarily and through recent laws. Electronics chains, such as Best Buy, offer to take used stereo and computer equipment on select days, and many auto service stations have collection facilities for hazardous used fluids like oil and antifreeze. Hardware stores also accept certain items for recycling, such as mercury-containing CFL light bulbs.

No matter what alternative you choose, you do not ever have to resort to simply dumping your HHW down the drain or into gutters. The amount of waste you have may seem small to you, but consider that a single quart of used motor oil can contaminate 250,000 gallons of drinking water. With a little patience and research, keeping household hazardous wastes out of your local environment is easy, and you will reap the benefits of a cleaner community.

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