Protecting the environment and consumers through household hazardous waste collection

By Richard Johnsen

Up until the 1970s, household hazardous wastes (HHW), such as oil-based paints and pesticides, were routinely thrown in with the household trash, down the kitchen drain or into storm sewers. These materials have historically been released to the environment through landfill or improper disposal.  

HHW includes excess consumer products in the home that have chemical constituents, which are toxic, flammable, poisonous, corrosive, or otherwise hazardous. These products, such as cleaners, paints, batteries, oils, antifreeze and pesticides, contain potentially hazardous ingredients that require expert capabilities during handling and disposal. Improper disposal of these wastes can pollute the environment and pose a health or safety threat to humans.

According to the EPA, proper HHW disposal programs provide several benefits:

  • Reduction and recycling of HHW conserves resources and energy that would be expended in the production of more products.
  • Reuse of hazardous household products can save money and reduce the need for generating hazardous substances.
  • Proper disposal prevents pollution that could endanger human health and the environment.

Today, municipalities across the country are proactively working to get HHW out of the municipal waste stream. They are using a variety of methods, from maintaining permanent collection sites to holding annual collection events for residents to public education and awareness programs.

The New York City Department of Sanitation has been conducting annual collection events for NYC residents in each of the five boroughs since 2012. These SAFE Disposal events (Solvents, Automotive, Flammables and Electronics) have successfully collected over 646 tons of HHW in the past three years.

For David Hirschler, director, Waste Prevention at the New York City Department of Sanitation, the SAFE Disposal events play an important role in keeping hazardous materials out of landfills and other waste streams. “These events make it convenient for residents to get rid of potentially dangerous materials left under a sink or in a garage. They also go a long way in protecting sanitation workers who may encounter hazardous materials and are unprepared to handle them.”

Not only are these events are a great way to prevent hazardous materials from entering the waste stream, but they also provide an opportunity to get very dangerous items out of peoples’ homes. It’s certainly safer for the professionals to handle these materials than for residents to let them collect in their homes.

Veolia provides environmental specialists, equipment, material and support to properly manage the HHW collected during the SAFE Disposal events. The company collects, packages and categorizes the waste by hazard class and DOT regulations prior to loading it onto trucks bound for one of its nearby Part B transportation, storage and disposal facilities. Once there, personnel re-manifest the material for transport to a number of different processing facilities based upon constituents and disposal technology.

A primary goal of the New York City Department of Sanitation is to recycle, reuse or reclaim the waste materials. In 2013, the event resulted in more than 350,000 pounds of HHW collected, which went straight to recycling and treatment facilities where these wastes were turned into reusable byproducts.

For instance, latex paint is sorted and sent it to a waste-to-energy facility. The material is put into a large mixing pit with municipal trash and blended into a fuel for their incinerator, which ultimately produces energy.  Oil based paints (stains, varnishes and lacquers) and gasoline and oils are sent to Veolia’s fuels blending facility in Middlesex, N.J. There, the liquids are blended into a specification fuel and ultimately sent to a cement kiln where it’s used as a fuel to operate the cement kiln. 

Electronics collection is also part of the SAFE events. Items such as rechargeable batteries, alkaline batteries, TV sets, computers and terminals all have components that are considered hazardous, such as mercury and heavy metals. Today, technology is available to reclaim this material instead of sending it to a landfill. For example, at the West Bridgewater facility in Massachusetts, processing equipment allows for more than 99 percent (by weight) of a fluorescent lamp to be recycled. Not only can a fluorescent lamp be separated into its core components of glass, aluminum and mercury-bearing phosphor power, but the mercury can be reclaimed as well, helping to keep it out of the environment.

Hirschler says working with the right disposal company is key to a successful event. “We need service providers that have the ability to manage the materials and are also able to handle the crowd.  We’re different from other cities because we get lots of walkers versus vehicles.” He also notes that it’s important for the disposal company to have the proper resources – staff, logistical know-how, transportation services and facilities – to handle the events along with the ability to manage the wastes responsibly.

Richard Johnsen is the special services manager for Veolia’s New Jersey Branch and project manager of the company’s SAFE Disposal event services.


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Derek Prall

Derek Prall is a professional journalist who has held numerous positions with a variety of print and online publications including The Public Manager magazine and the New Jersey Herald. He is a 2008...

Jason Axelrod

Jason Axelrod is an award-winning journalist who has reported for The Seattle Times, The Arizona Republic, the Phoenix Business Journal and Mother Nature Network, among other outlets. Jason...
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