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Stop Hoarding All of That Hazardous Waste

Nail polish, batteries, hand sanitizer: You may not think of these regular household items as toxic, but they are, and they’re poisoning our water and food supplies.
(Photo: Anna Vaczi/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Anna Vaczi/Shutterstock)

Every flu season we seem to hear about a new downside to hand sanitizer. Here's another: When you throw it away, it becomes hazardous waste (alcohol, the main ingredient, is flammable). The same is true of many other common personal and household products—in your make-up bag: nail polish and remover, eye shadow, and lipstick; under your kitchen sink: household polishes, fertilizer, pesticide. Move down the hall to the office and you’ll find more: batteries, old computers, last year's cell phones. These are not items you'd think to classify as hazardous, but if your home were a large corporation you'd be required to dispose of them a lot more carefully than you probably do.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the average household in the United States generates about 20 pounds of hazardous waste per year, totaling about 530,000 tons, or 1.06 billion pounds. That’s an average of four pounds per person. We also inadvertently hoard the stuff. As much as 100 pounds of hazardous waste can easily accumulate in a home before it's sold to a new owner.

This is a fraction of all the hazardous waste disposed of globally, and far less than what industry produces. But it is unregulated, and thus goes straight to landfills or down the drain, where dangerous chemicals leach into our water and soil.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the average household generates about 20 pounds of hazardous waste per year, totaling about 530,000 tons, or 1.06 billion pounds.

Here's a green challenge you probably haven't heard before: Reduce your four pounds to one, and dispose of that one pound properly.

As an attorney, I worked with large manufacturing companies for more than 25 years to ensure their compliance with applicable hazardous waste laws. These companies were required to account for such waste from cradle to grave, even though many of those same materials households and small businesses can just toss in the trash.

Maybe you're shaking your head, thinking no way could I generate so much in a year, I am very careful about what I throw out. Let me ask you: What do you do with that container of lighter fluid, paint, hand sanitizer, or nail polish when there's some left but not enough to grill dinner or paint all of your toes? Those drops add up. And would you really have thought to take last year's hand sanitizer and eye shadow to a hazardous waste program?

You can be forgiven for not giving this much thought. After all, it wasn't until 35 years ago that hazardous waste even showed up on the political agenda; in 1976 a law, known as the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, was passed, mandating businesses to dispose of waste differently. Since that law doesn't apply to most of us, we have to do the right thing on our own.

How might you reduce your four pounds to one this year? Here are just a few ideas. First, be aware of what is hazardous and buy less of it. Do you really need that phone/tablet/computer upgrade? If you do, can you give the old one to someone who could use it, and, if not, can you make sure you recycle it? Can you buy rechargeable batteries or test your others before you throw them out?

Do you really need 10 shades of lipstick? Buy what you need, and then when you're tired of the color, share it with your sister or girlfriend. Can you skip buying nail polish entirely and treat yourself to a manicure once in a while instead? If you do find yourself with a shoebox full of mostly empty bottles, see if you can donate them to an art school. (My mother taught me that one—she was an artist and collected old lipstick and nail polish.) Many cosmetic companies also have return programs for their products. Look for other places that will take your stuff back.

Find out when your community has a household hazardous waste day, and if there isn't one coming up, ask your employer to sponsor one at your place of work. Collaborate with your neighbors and volunteer to take the area waste to your local household hazardous waste programs. There are also programs for small businesses. Call the National Recycling Hotline at 1-800-CLEANUP (253-2687). Many of the products brought to these types of programs are returned to the community for re-use, thereby benefiting not only the environment, but our communities as well.

Recycling is more than separating paper and plastic. We also need to recognize that we produce toxic waste, and we need to start disposing of it responsibly.