The term "hazardous waste" calls up images of industrial plants spewing ugly green effluent into the nearest waterway or nuclear energy plants on the verge of meltdown. But you need look no further than your own basement, garage, and storage closets to discover stuff --- much of it seemingly benign --- that is dangerous to you and others today, and potentially harmful to the environment for years to come.
A while ago, I told a neighbor who was moving to let me know if there was anything I could do to help. The next day I found outside my door trash barrels filled with sundry junk --- containers of paint, oven cleaner, toilet bowl sanitizer, wood polish, furniture stripper, darkroom chemicals, a computer monitor, insect spray, fungicide... Attached was a note from my neighbor, who happened to be an environmental engineer: "All this stuff is hazardous waste. Do you mind getting rid of it? We didn't have time."
Whether I minded or not, I was stuck with it. Aside from some laundry bleach and metal polish, the stuff was useless to me. My first impulse was to put it all curbside for trash pickup. Fortunately, I learned that the Monroe County Department of Environmental Services runs a household hazardous waste (HHW) collection center on East Henrietta Road, right across from MonroeCommunityHospital.
County residents can drop off most types of HHW in limited quantities at the collection center. I arrived at my scheduled time and, after a short wait for a car in front of me, two men took my neighbor's boxes and containers out of the back of my station wagon. And that was that. (They didn't accept the computer monitor, but I eventually found a safe place for that, too. See sidebar.)
Americans generate 1.6 million tons of HHW every year, with 100 pounds of it lurking in the average home, says the federal Environmental Protection Agency. During the 1980s, communities started to respond to the problem, organizing special collection days and other programs. A relatively small number of communities set up permanent collection sites.
MonroeCounty has the only permanent site in Western New York, one of five in the entire state, says Tom Sinclair, who oversees operations at Monroe's drop-off center. Collection of HHW by the county began with a one-day event in 1989 that drew 1,400 participants. Two years later, the county built the permanent collection center at 444 East Henrietta Road. (The DES also runs mobile collections several times a year in conjunction with outlying MonroeCounty towns and villages, which promote the one-day events.)
In 2004, the program received more than 297 tons of HHW from more than 6,000 households, about 99 pounds per household served. The operation has a $300,000 annual budget and a staff of eight employees.
Sitting at his desk in a sparely furnished office at the collection center, Sinclair cheerfully offers a quick dose of HHW consciousness. As he talks, I'm reminded of a couple of basic environmental realities: The waste from our everyday lives ripples through nature in ways most of us don't contemplate. And our best environmental control systems can only mitigate the flow and soften the impact of waste materials we push into the air, the ground, and the water.
Sinclair describes how substances thrown into the trash, dumped behind the garage, or simply left to corrode eventually percolate through the earth into the water table. Poured down sink drains or into storm sewers, HHW contaminates septic tanks and wastewater treatment systems, not to mention streams, rivers, canals, lakes, and oceans.
With HHW, the important first step is to get the dangerous stuff out of the home, where children and pets are the most likely to be hurt by it. And remember that if it is potentially harmful to you, it can certainly hurt others. A sanitation worker was badly injured a few years ago in East Rochester by a caustic substance in household garbage, Sinclair says.
HHW disposal is free for county residents, within set limits on what and how much you can leave. Drop-offs are by appointment, to be sure that the people and gear needed to receive materials are ready and, Sinclair says with obvious pride, so that "nobody has to wait in a line of cars." Appointments are usually several days from the time you phone; the DES sends callers a flier with details of what can and can't be brought in, the drop-off process, directions to the site, and other information. Collection hours include one evening and one Saturday a month, and the staff generally tries to be flexible and responsive to individual needs.
What happens to the HHW that's collected? Eastman Kodak Company voluntarily disposes of one quarter of the non-recyclable materials in its hazardous waste incinerator, saving taxpayers thousands of dollars. (Some items, like printer cartridges, can be recycled at no cost to the county.) The balance is hauled away by a commercial disposal operation, which burns it in its own licensed incinerator.
So even when properly disposed of, hazardous waste seeps into the environment. That's why the first leg of the three-part EPA mantra is REDUCE. Using less at the front end means less out the back end.
"Buy only what you can use," Sinclair says. "What you can't use, give away. People keep half-empty paint cans in the garage for touchups. Face it: You're never going to touch up the hallway. Give the paint to the neighbor. If it's not the right color, they can use it for primer."
The countyHHW web pages (www.monroecounty.gov under Environmental Services) include basic information on the program and a nifty interactive "virtual house" you can use to track down hazardous materials in your home.
To unload your household hazardous waste, call MonroeCounty's HHW collection center at 760-7600 (option 3). MonroeCounty residents can bring up to 30 gallons of liquid and 75 pounds of solid HHW per appointment without charge. No 55-gallon drums accepted.
Webster and Penfield will hold an appointment-only HHW collection at the Webster Highway Garage, 1005 Picture Parkway, on Saturday, April 23, from 8 a.m. to noon. Webster residents call 872-1443. Penfield residents call 340-8710.
A scan of household hazardous waste websites in other cities indicates that, while bigger metro areas like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Minneapolis have more pick-up events, none have basic services that surpass what the MonroeCounty program offers. The HHW program in the Seattle area (King County, Washington) is widely considered a model, according to MonroeCounty's Tom Sinclair, but even that program has only the same basic components of our local service. Boston appears to have a more limited program than ours.
One of the biggest energy hogs in a growing number of households is the home computer. A recent United Nations report (Computers and the Environment, by the UnitedNationsUniversity in Tokyo) says that the average desktop PC and 17-inch monitor take as much water, fossil fuels, and chemicals to manufacture as an SUV. And the report adds that a computer's lifetime energy impact is about the same as a refrigerator.
With computers, the input side is only part of the environmental problem. The machines and their monitors contain ecologically nasty substances like lead and mercury, so disposing of them is a big problem compounded by the short lifecycle of machines in the "must-upgrade" world of computing.
Recycling the growing mountain of old computers can also be expensive --- too expensive for MonroeCounty and other localities to offer as a service. However, for a nominal cost, Dell Computer Co. offers pickup of obsolete computer components and monitors, as well as a program that refurbishes newer computers for use by disabled and economically disadvantaged people. (Do a Google search for "Dell computer recycling.")
Some states are pushing programs to charge computer makers a front-end fee at the retail level that would help pay for recycling of computer components. "The actual costs of recycling will be part of the price and the bottom line," Robin Schneider, executive director of the Texas Campaign for the Environment, told Wired magazine. "We want the companies to compete on that basis." As it stands, Schneider said, computer manufacturers have no incentive to design less-toxic products because disposing of the machines is not their problem.
Recycling is better than throwing computers in the trash, which may be illegal and risks exposing the personal data on your hard drive. But recycling destroys the machine that it took so many resources to make. The most effective way to reduce a computer's environmental impact is to extend its useful life. Some commercial enterprises have made a profitable business by collecting old computers for a fee then refurbishing and reselling them. (Two local firms are Rochester Computer Recycling and Recovery and Maven Technologies.)
Better yet is a not-for-profit organization called Micrecycle, which accepts PCs with a Pentium 233 chip or newer (which covers computers made in the past six or seven years). Macintosh machines are not accepted. Staffed by volunteers, Micrecycle repairs and refurbishes computer components for free distribution to Rochester-area non-profits.
Based at the RochesterMuseum and ScienceCenter, and operating under the umbrella of Science Linkages in the Community (SLIC), the organization's ulterior aim is "to bridge the digital divide," says Gerald Frith, operations manager. In addition to computers, Micrecycle accepts monitors and printers in working condition. (Computers don't have to work.) For information on donating or volunteering, call 224-4040 or visit www.micrecycle.org.
Rechargeable batteries from laptop computers, cell phones and other electronic devices contain hazardous metals like cadmium and mercury. These can be dropped off by appointment at the countyHHW center. Also, many Radio Shack stores will accept rechargeable batteries and cell phones. According to the Radio Shack website, proceeds from cell phone collection benefit the NationalCenter for Missing & Exploited Children. (Call the store for information first.) Also, a number of charities, churches, schools, and not-for-profits run cell-phone collection programs to raise funds.
Got some household hazardous waste to unload? Here's a list of what is and isn't accepted at MonroeCounty's drop-off site.
• Oil-based and latex paint (for 1/3 gallon or less of latex paint: discard lid, add kitty litter, let dry, place can in trash)
• Wood stain and preservatives
• Automotive fluids (antifreeze; brake, power steering, and transmission fluids)
• Pesticides and fertilizers
• Flammable products (gasoline, kerosene, thinners, strippers, solvents, glues, etc.)
• Household cleaners (soaps, waxes, drain cleaners, etc.)
• Driveway sealer
• Propane tanks (one- and 20-pound only)
• Pool and photo chemicals
• Rechargeable (Ni-Cad) and button batteries
• Mercury (thermometers, thermostats)
• Syringes/sharps (safely packaged)
• Cooking oil/cooking grease
Materials not accepted
• 1/3 gallon or less of latex paint
• Cans with dried paint --- remove lid and place in trash
• Used motor oil and lead acid batteries (contact service station or retailer)
• Empty containers (place in trash or recycle)
• Smoke detectors (trash or contact maker)
• Everyday alkaline batteries (place in trash)
• Glazing/spackle and joint compounds (trash)
• Asbestos (see Yellow Pages under --- "Asbestos Abatement")
• Products intended for industrial use
• Explosives/ammunition/black/smokeless power (call 911)
• Shock sensitive materials (i.e. crystallized ethers, picric acid) (call 911)
One of the best ways to reduce HHW is to use alternatives to toxic household products. Here are some ideas from the EPA:
• Drain cleaner: use a plunger or plumber's snake.
• Oven cleaner: clean spills as soon as the oven cools using steel wool and baking soda; for tough stains, add salt (do not use this method in self-cleaning or continuous-cleaning ovens).
• Glass cleaner: mix one tablespoon of vinegar or lemon juice in one quart of water. Spray on and use newspaper to wipe dry.
• Toilet bowl cleaner: Use a toilet brush and baking soda or vinegar. (This will clean but not disinfect.)
• Furniture polish: Mix one teaspoon of lemon juice in one pint of mineral or vegetable oil, and wipe furniture.
• Rug deodorizer: Deodorize dry carpets by sprinkling liberally with baking soda. Wait at least 15 minutes and vacuum. Repeat if necessary.
• Silver polish: Boil two to three inches of water in a shallow pan with one teaspoon of salt, one teaspoon of baking soda, and a sheet of aluminum foil. Totally submerge silver and boil for two to three more minutes. Wipe away tarnish. Repeat if necessary. (Do not use this method on antique silver knives. The blade will separate from the handle.) Another alternative is to use nonabrasive toothpaste.
• Plant sprays: Wipe leaves with mild soap and water; rinse.
• Mothballs: Use cedar chips, lavender flowers, rosemary, mint, or white peppercorns.
• Flea and tick products: Put brewer's yeast or garlic in your pet's food; sprinkle fennel, rue, rosemary, or eucalyptus seeds or leaves around animal sleeping areas.
• DO NOT mix anything with a commercial cleaning agent.
• If you do store a homemade mixture, make sure it is properly labeled and do not store it in a container that could be mistaken for food or beverage.
• When preparing alternatives, mix only what is needed for the job at hand and mix them in clean, reusable containers. This avoids waste and the need to store any cleaning mixture.
An EPA website has plenty of additional information that can be useful, as do the websites of other metro areas:
• www.epa.gov/epaoswer/non-hw/muncpl/hhw.htm (EPA)
• www.govlink.org/hazwaste/index.cfm (King County, Wash.)
• ladpw.org/epd/hhw/ (Los AngelesCounty)
• www.ci.minneapolis.mn.us/solid-waste/hhw.asp (Minneapolis/Hennepin County, Minn.)
• temp.sfgov.org/sfenvironment/aboutus/toxics/pickup.htm (San Francisco)