The “hazards” of household waste

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The household hazardous waste industry is faced with a myriad of potential risks – from the improper handling and disposal of household hazardous waste (HHW) to the contamination issues resulting from wrongful disposal methods to the inherent dangers on the part of sanitation workers handling HHW.

A significant part of SWACO’s work involves educating and engaging local residents about proper diversion methods through education and outreach efforts. This includes providing HHW disposal services for all residents in partnership with Environmental Enterprises Incorporated (EEI). In addition to operating an HHW center where residents can bring accepted waste items for recycling and/or environmentally safe disposal, they also offer mobile collection events throughout the year in partnership with local communities.

“As an organization that is devoted to keeping all types of materials out of landfills, the biggest issue for SWACO is simply that there is a tremendous amount of household hazardous waste generated every year, and the volumes aren’t getting any smaller,” Booker said.

While there are certainly instances of improper handling of this material by residents, the biggest issue is the difficulty in identification or handling of this type of waste.

“I think it’s mostly just the lack of awareness of how to properly dispose of it. In many places there are very limited opportunities to do so properly,” Booker said. SWACO has been able to provide a permanent location where residents can take their HHW, and the company conducts several temporary events each year.

“But it’s an extremely expensive undertaking, which is without a doubt a limiting factor to how widely these types of facilities or events can be offered,” Booker said. “It’s the reason that in many parts of country there are very limited options for residents to properly dispose of these materials properly, unfortunately.”
What’s more, in 2021, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a statement about the trend of some commercial hazardous waste incinerators turning away their customers (hazardous waste generators) due to a backlog at their facilities. Hazardous waste generators are only allowed to accumulate hazardous waste on-site for a maximum of 90 days for large quantity generators (LQGs) or 180 days for small quantity generators (SQGs). However, because of the backlog, hazardous waste generators are finding it difficult to locate TSDFs to send their hazardous waste within regulatory time frames. As a result, the EPA discussed the use of temporary authorizations and permit modifications to treatment, storage and disposal facilities storage capacities, while also allowing time limit extension requests by LQGs and SQGs. In August 2021, the EPA released a statement that these regulatory options are still in effect due to the continued issues of hazardous waste disposal options.

Safety First

The most common safety problem that Booker has heard about regarding HHW are fires at recycling processing facilities caused by lithium batteries. It’s a very common occurrence, and can be very dangerous.

As Booker explained, lithium batteries are in a lot of commonly used items at this point, and most residents have a sense that they are recyclable and shouldn’t be put in the trash, but of course they also shouldn’t be put in residential curbside recycling.

“People are trying to do the right thing, although they are choosing the wrong way to go about it,” Booker said. “It creates a real danger for the recycling facilities and the people that work there. We message against it regularly, but a lot still end up in curbside recycling carts, so they also end up at the MRFs, creating a lot of risk.”

Efforts By Municipalities

If a municipality has the ability to provide collection points, either permanently or through mobile events, people will participate, but the cost of doing so makes this an impractical solution for many jurisdictions.

“Even if these are provided, only a certain percentage of residents will participate. So, I am not suggesting in any way that the provision of permanent or mobile collection events should be considered a true ‘solution,’” Booker said.

In SWACO’s jurisdiction, which is all of Franklin County, Ohio, the company provides a permanent location and several mobile collection events each year, which are available to all residents in the county. They also have at least one local jurisdiction that hosts their own smaller event for their residents, and several have started to accept certain items year-round – typically just batteries, fluorescent light bulbs, and electronic waste. Ultimately Booker thinks that this is the direction that the industry needs to go – a network of local collection points, some regional options, and, importantly, more retailer take-back opportunities for these materials as well.

“We really need shared responsibility in providing as many easily accessible options for residents to responsibly dispose of these items,” Booker said. “It’s not realistic, or fair, to expect waste companies or local jurisdictions to be the sole ‘solver’ of this problem. We also need the companies that are producing and selling these items to step up and help be part of the solution.”

In late August, the Illinois EPA announced a temporary suspension of all HHW events and locations after a fire occurred at a disposal facility in Ohio. The Illinois EPA is working with the current contractor to evaluate alternatives for disposal until the Ohio facility is back up and running, which isn’t expected until mid-November.

Education Is Key

If local or regional solid waste management districts or authorities are providing education on recycling and composting, the proper handling and disposal of HHW is naturally another important part of the overall education message.

That said, Booked stressed that the industry also needs to be educating, constantly, about other non- or less-hazardous options that residents can use and “right-sizing” their purchasing so that they aren’t left with so much excess material.

“But those can be challenging issues to improve on. It can be difficult to change long-standing purchasing habits,” Booker said. “I also think that there are opportunities for much better point-of-purchase messaging. Many people leave the hardware store with a product and have not even contemplated that there may be challenges with properly disposing of the item. There are opportunities to reach them sooner to make them aware that proper disposal of the item won’t be as easy as putting it in their trash.”

Of course, all aspects of the waste and recycling industry are evolving towards greater use of robotics and AI, so that might be the easy answer to the influx of HHW. But Booker hoped that some of the technological innovations will be used to make some of these products less hazardous to begin with.
“There does seem to be a trend by some of the large corporations to market more items that have less hazardous characteristics or toxicity,” Booker said. “Hopefully this trend continues so that residents won’t have as much of this material to deal with to begin with.”

Booker said businesses that sell a product to consumers that is particularly problematic to properly dispose of at the end of its use need to be part of the solution to the disposal problem that they are helping to create.

“The idea that waste companies, municipalities, counties, or regional government entities are solely responsible for fixing this problem just doesn’t make sense, and in fact takes me back to the ‘end of pipe’ solutions of the past, which were often proven to be limited in addressing the broader environmental problems they were trying to address,” Booker said.

The need for extended producer responsibility continues to grow, and for good reason. “We can debate the pros and cons of any specific piece of EPR legislation, and I could fall on either side of that debate depending upon what legislation we’re talking about, but the general principal – that if a company is going to manufacture or sell a product that is inherently difficult to dispose of responsibly, then you need to be part of the solution to problem that you’re contributing to – this concept is sound,” Booker said. “I’m not suggesting that they have to do it alone, just that they should take responsibility to be part of the solution to the problem that they are contributing to.”

There are many examples that could be provided, but one good example is isocyanates, those foam insulation/sealant kits that can be purchased at hardware stores. These are serious chemicals and can be very dangerous to residents if they are not used correctly. Residents inevitably end up with excess canisters and have no idea of how to properly dispose of them.

“When they purchase them they often assume that it will be just as easy as taking a propane tank back to the store. It’s not,” Booker said. “The idea that waste companies or local political jurisdictions should be solely responsible for providing a responsible solution to something like this just doesn’t make sense to me. If we’re going to put these materials out into the residential waste stream, all entities involved in doing so need to part of a responsible disposal solution.”

Published in the October 2022 Edition

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