Toxic and hazardous waste may not be common in many households, but the proper disposal of any such waste should always include an abundance of caution. What is toxic waste and what is hazardous waste? How can you identify it in your home or business and how can you dispose of it safely?
What is hazardous waste?
Hazardous waste is defined by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as “…waste with properties that make it dangerous or capable of having a harmful effect on human health or the environment.” This definition can include a wide variety of solid waste types, so it’s worth digging into the definition a little deeper to obtain a clearer definition of what constitutes hazardous waste.
Firstly, the EPA uses a set of four characteristics to categorize hazardous waste:
- Ignitability: includes liquids and non-liquid waste that can be ignited according to standardized testing procedures and under specific conditions.
- Corrosivity: includes corrosive aqueous waste that can corrode steel and has a pH ≤2 or ≥12.5.
- Reactivity: includes waste that can release toxic gas or be detonated or exploded under specific conditions such as reacting to water or when exposed to heat.
- Toxicity: includes waste that can be hazardous to humans and/or animals if inhaled or ingested or otherwise absorbed.
What this means is that hazardous waste includes many types of waste in various forms. Although many may commonly associate it with popular references such as green sludge that has the power to turn baby turtles into fully grown ninjas, it isn’t always so obvious in the real world when one may be dealing with hazardous waste.
In addition to the above-mentioned characteristics for hazardous waste, the EPA also defines specific types of hazardous waste such as radiological waste. For all practical intents and purposes, your home very likely doesn’t generate radioactive waste and you’ll probably never need to worry about disposing of radioactive materials, either. One rare exception is that some smoke detectors contain an isotope called americium which may constitute radioactive waste.
Common examples of hazardous waste
There are many types of hazardous waste that may be present in your home or business. Although they may or may not be hazardous in their inert state, they can be hazardous to dispose of. For example, laptops and TVs are a common form of e-waste that may be harmless when used but which can become hazardous when improperly disposed of in a landfill.
This list by the EPA contains various hazardous waste classifications, most of which are completely irrelevant to everyday American households. Many of these types of hazardous waste are direct byproducts of industrial processes such as petrochemical refining and manufacturing.
A common form of hazardous waste, universal waste is so called because it is fairly ubiquitous. Universal waste is present in most homes and businesses, to varying degrees, and it is considered less hazardous than other forms of hazardous waste, e.g. industrial waste.
Some common examples include:
- Fluorescent light bulbs
- Lead-acid batteries & lithium batteries
- Devices containing mercury
- CRT monitors
Although universal waste is fairly common, it is still hazardous waste and must therefore be disposed of in a proper manner.
Household Hazardous Waste (HHW)
Most households in the United States generate some amount of hazardous waste, which typically falls under the category of household hazardous waste (HHW).
Some common examples include:
- Appliances with refrigerants
- Automotive solvents (lubricants, motor oil, etc.)
- Batteries (car batteries, lead-acid batteries, lithium batteries)
- Cleaning solutions containing caustic compounds
- E-waste (laptops, TVs, cell phones, tablets)
- Mercury-containing products and devices
- Paints and solvents
- Propane cylinders
There are many other household products that can be considered hazardous waste. If you’re unsure of whether or not a product is hazardous, check the label for handling and disposal or consult your municipal sanitation department since they will generally not accept these types of items from the curb on collection day.
Why proper hazardous waste disposal is important
The proper disposal of hazardous waste is important for a number of reasons. In brief, the safe disposal of hazardous waste ensures that you, others, and the environment are kept as safe as possible from the hazards that can potentially present themselves.
Improper disposal of hazardous waste can lead to a wide variety of negative effects. Directly, hazardous waste can cause illness, injury, or even death to you or to anyone exposed to the waste. Indirectly, hazardous waste poses many externalities that can negatively affect others as well as the environment, including flora and fauna.
How to dispose of toxic waste safely
Methods of disposing of hazardous waste in the United States can differ greatly depending on the type of waste, the quantity, and the level of hazard it poses. Generally, homeowners can follow the below steps to safely dispose of hazardous waste (including toxic waste).
Business owners have a greater responsibility to understand the legal ramifications of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and to act in compliance with the law.
Check product labels
Most products that can be purchased in retail stores that can become hazardous waste will come with a clearly defined and standardized label denoting the type of hazard it can pose, as well as instructions on how to handle and store the product.
You should familiarize yourself with these instructions and only use products in the prescribed manner, including the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) as required.
Call your local sanitation department
Unsure of whether or not you can toss your AA batteries in the bin for weekly garbage collection? Municipal authorities across the United States often have their own lists of items they will and will not accept during routine collection, so give them a call and ask whether or not you can toss a certain item in the bin.
Keep products stored in original containers
For health and safety reasons, it’s important to always keep products in their original containers. Liquid drain cleaners, bleach, and many other liquids can be severely harmful or lethal, and you simply cannot afford to have these types of products mistaken for something they aren’t.
This is especially important for business owners. Commercially-sold products such as cleaning agents may come in containers that do not resemble the same product you can purchase in a shop, for example, but they will still need to be labelled appropriately if they aren’t already. You may also need to keep Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) on hand and employees must be trained on how to handle, transport, and dispose of products in accordance with the MSDS.
Exercise caution when handling or using hazardous substances
There is a good reason why laundry detergent capsules must now be sold in containers that are difficult for a child to open, but keep in mind that all hazardous substances should be opened, used, and transported with appropriate care. Read the label instructions carefully if you aren’t sure.
Business owners should familiarize themselves and their employees with MSDS for potentially hazardous substances.
Dispose of hazardous waste in the correct manner
If you’ve followed the above steps, you should have a much clearer idea of how to transport and dispose of many hazardous substances in a safe manner.
Specific items like batteries or household electronics can often be disposed of for free at collection bins in large retail stores like Best Buy, who will then recycle the e-waste in an environmentally friendly way. Other items like asbestos typically require demolition debris specialists with the appropriate permits and licensing to handle asbestos, so don’t attempt to dispose of asbestos on your own.
Since there are so many different types of hazardous waste and their disposal methods can vary so much, there’s no one-size-fits-all process for all hazardous waste.
Hazardous waste permits in the United States
Although junk removal services can help you de-clutter your home and junk haulers are familiar with handling various types of junk, hazardous waste disposal is a service that they seldom provide. One of the biggest reasons that junk haulers typically don’t handle hazardous waste is due to the stringent regulations on hazardous waste handling, transportation and disposal and the requirement for extra licensing and permits.
In the United States, hazardous waste management is under the remit of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). The RCRA was created under the authority of the EPA and through mandate of the Congress. Their regulations and the laws regarding hazardous waste management apply federally, although states may enact amendments conforming to the RCRA and thus have their own individual methods of administration.
Most independent junk haulers in the United States will gladly and capably help you to dispose of bulky items like appliances and furniture, but very rarely will they be able to handle hazardous waste. Therefore, it is always recommended that you inquire with them about hazardous waste disposal before arranging for an appointment.
Clearing out household clutter and junk
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