Most people are surprised at the amount of household hazardous waste they've accumulated in their homes. That's because many common household products are toxic, corrosive, ignitable, or reactive materials that need to be handled, stored, and disposed of very carefully. The average American home has as much as 100 pounds of hazardous materials in it, and the EPA estimates that we generate as much as 1.6 million tons of household hazardous waste each year.
Types of Hazardous Waste
If your collection of shrunken heads were treated with formaldehyde, they actually might count as hazardous materials, since formaldehyde is believed to cause cancer. But people with more conventional hobbies still accumulate bug spray, drain cleaner, old paint, used motor oil, pool chemicals, old lighter fluid, nail polish, old batteries, rat poison, unused electronic items, compact fluorescent lights (CFLs), nail polish remover and dozens of other ordinary consumer products that are hazardous to pets, people, and the environment.
Many of the items listed as hazardous materials are flammable and can catch fire easily—in some cases, they can be explosive, too. Some hazardous consumer products, like nail polish remover, bug spray, and rat poison are highly toxic to children and pets. And CFLs contain mercury, a potentially deadly, cancer-causing agent.
Should I Throw Out Hazardous Materials?
Not so fast! Those hazardous items can't be thrown in the garbage or down the drain—it just ends up in a river or in groundwater somewhere else. And if you're on a septic tank, those chemicals can kill the bugs in your tank that process your septic waste. Even if it ends up in a landfill, it can leech out and get into drinking water supplies. Finally, if your trash hauler finds any hazmat items in your garbage can, there can be serious fines.
Can I Bury It in the Backyard?
Burying hazardous waste is not advisable unless you want your yard to be declared a hazardous waste site. (And if you combine some chemicals, you could create an explosive or corrosive compound, so don't mix them together!) Instead, you can gather up all your old CFL light bulbs, cans of paint, motor oil, and other hazardous household waste and take them down to your local hazmat disposal center once a year, like during spring cleaning.
Find a Hazardous Waste Disposal Center
Earth911 will tell you exactly where your local hazmat center is and even provide a phone number. Be aware that many of these facilities are open to local residents only (they don't want people trucking in their waste from out-of-town), and some have limits regarding what they will and will not accept, so call first. Other communities sponsor annual hazmat drives with convenient drop-off locations. Call your neighborhood trash collector or public works office for local options.
Cutting Down on Hazardous Waste
It's easy to find your house filled with toxic and hazardous material by just shopping like an ordinary person. (Most of us have had a clogged drain at some point.) But there are safer options available for most hazardous products, like low-VOC paints, LED light bulbs, and safer insect repellents. The best way to control hazardous materials in your house? Don't buy them in the first place.