What Makes Waste Hazardous?
In order for an item to be considered hazardous waste, it must be either poisonous, corrosive, explosive, or flammable. To protect the environment, including humans (and especially your dedicated sanitation workers), hazardous items should be disposed of in the safest way possible. Check with your local municipality to learn about disposal restrictions and options, including special e-waste events.
As computer monitors get larger, cheaper, and lighter, upgrades become more tempting—and frequent. But that old monitor you'll be discarding contains heavy metals that can contaminate landfills. In some communities, it may even be illegal to toss a monitor in the trash. Look for a local recycling center that will take it or, as an alternative, take it to a Best Buy store; in most states, they'll accept old computer monitors.
Mercury thermometers have been phased out because of the element's toxicity, but you may still have one in your home. Rather than tossing it in the trash where there’s a chance it could break and release its mercury, check with your local health department, pharmacy, or doctor’s office, some of which will offer a mercury-free thermometer in exchange for your old one.
Some Old Medications
Some medications, including OxyContin and fentanyl, can result in injury or death if taken by a person other than the one they were prescribed for, so never throw them in the trash where someone could dig them out or a pet could ingest them. Call your local pharmacy or police station to ask if they have a take-back program. If they don’t, check out the FDA’s Flush List to find out which medications you should immediately flush if no take-back options are available.
Found in cellphones, laptops, power tools, and even some toys, rechargeable batteries contain heavy metals such as lead and cadmium as well as a host of chemicals that can pollute the environment and groundwater if they’re buried with other trash. When you’re done with a rechargeable battery, put it in a sealed plastic bag and then call your local trash authority to find out where you should take it for disposal. Keep in mind that Staples stores will usually take rechargeable batteries, as will Home Depot stores in most states.
Damp Rags Used to Apply Stain
You probably know you shouldn’t throw away partially used cans of paint or wood stain, but you may not know that it's dangerous merely to put rags that are damp from stain in the trash. The chemicals in wood stain are highly flammable, and the damp rags can spontaneously combust if they’re thrown away while they’re still wet. Before you can safely throw them away, you must first spread them out to dry.
The thermostat is another common item that contains mercury, so it should never go in the trash. Newer digital thermostats don’t pose a problem, but according to the EPA, if you’re replacing an old one that has a tubular glass “tilt switch,” you’ll need to take it to a local hazardous waste collection center.
Used to power things like camp stoves and personal-size outdoor heaters, small one-pound propane cylinders should be emptied completely, punctured with a nail or a screwdriver (if required by your local recycling center), and then added to the tin bin. If, however, a cylinder is still partially full, drop it off at your local hazardous waste collection center.
If you’re handy at working on cars, you can save bucks by changing your automobile’s oil and antifreeze, but don’t even think about dumping those liquids on the ground where they can contaminate the soil and poison animals. Pour the fluid into a large plastic bucket with a fitted lid, and then call a auto repair shop, which can safely dispose of it for you, typically for a small fee.
The pesticide you use to control unwanted critters in your yard has an expiration date, after which it’s not as effective. But even then, it shouldn’t go in the trash. Call 1-800-CLEANUP (1-800-253-2687), go to earth911.com, or contact your State Health and Environmental Agency for product-specific disposal instructions.
Printer Ink Cartridges
While printer ink itself isn’t toxic, the plastic cartridges the ink comes in aren't biodegradable; they'll take up space in the landfill for up to 1,000 years before they finally decompose. Fortunately, safely disposing of ink cartridges is pretty simple. Many retail stores, including Walgreens, Office Depot, and Staples, will recycle them for you—and they may even pay you a small return fee for bringing them in!
After you replace your car's tires, don’t even consider dumping the worn-out ones in the landfill. Many landfills have banned tires because they take up so much space and don't biodegrade. As well, their shape makes them difficult to bury, and they're great breeding grounds for mosquitoes. Even worse is the prospect of a tire fire in a landfill, which releases toxic chemicals into the air and is difficult to extinguish. Be a good citizen and check out your state’s scrap tire program to find out where you can dispose of old tires legally.
Many different types of glues and adhesives are used in household and workshop projects, but a number of these, including rubber cement and epoxy, contain solvents that will contaminate the environment, so don’t toss them in the trash. Disposal instructions are printed right on their containers and may involve opening the lid to let the product dry completely before taking it to a hazardous waste collection center.
Vintage Shoes with Flashing Lights
They once were all the rage, but if you still have a pair of athletic shoes made before 1997 that have built-in lights that flash with every step, they may, believe it or not, contain mercury, according to Stanford University. Don’t toss them out and don’t let Fido chew on them; instead, take them to a hazardous waste collection center.
Nail Polish Remover
Nail polish remover contains acetone, which emits highly flammable vapors. To reduce the risk of fire, allow saturated cotton balls and swabs to dry completely before throwing them away. Place used bottles and jars that contained nail polish remover in a separate plastic bag, tie the top closed, and then throw the bag in the trash.
Broken Light Bulbs
Not all types of broken light bulbs present a hazard, but compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs), black lights, tanning bulbs, and the bulbs used in bug zappers contain mercury vapor. If you break one, don’t vacuum it up—instead, air out the room for 5 to 10 minutes, then pick up the large pieces and put them in a glass jar, and use sticky tape to pick up the tiny shards. Put the used sticky tape and any other light bulb debris in the jar, secure it with a lid, then put the jar in a sealed plastic bag and take it to a hazardous waste collection center.
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