How to Dispose of Household Hazardous Waste

The Right Way to Throw Out Lighter Fluid, Batteries, and Nail Polish

Used, empty paint cans
PieroAnnoni / Getty Images

Most people are surprised at the amount of household hazardous waste that has accumulated in their homes. That is 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 Environmental Protection Agency 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. Thankfully, there are not that many of those collections around, but it turns out most conventional hobbies and household chores are literally toxic.

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 lightbulbs (CFLs), nail polish remover, and dozens of other ordinary consumer products 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.

Throwing Out Hazardous Materials?

Do not toss these materials in the regular trash. These hazardous items cannot be thrown in garbage receptacles or down the drain—it will end up in a river or in groundwater somewhere else. And if you live with a septic tank, those toxic chemicals can kill the organisms in your tank that process your septic waste. Even if the hazardous materials end up in a landfill, it can leech out and get into the drinking water supply. Finally, if your trash hauler finds any hazmat items in your garbage, you can incur 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. Also, you may unwittingly combine discarded chemicals that could create an explosive or corrosive compound, so do not take any chances. Instead, gather up all your old CFL bulbs, cans of paint, motor oil, and other hazardous household waste and take them down to your local hazmat disposal center once a year during spring cleaning.

Find a Hazardous Waste Disposal Center

Through Earth911, you can find out exactly where your local hazmat center is and even can get a phone number in case you have specific questions. Be aware that many of these facilities are open to local residents only (they do not 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 is easy to inadvertently fill your house with toxic and hazardous material by just shopping like an ordinary person. (Most people have had a clogged drain at some point.) But there are safer options available for most hazardous products, like low-VOC paints, LED (light-emitting diode) light bulbs, and safer insect repellents. The absolute best way to control hazardous materials in your house is to not buy them in the first place.