My daughter MK is enrolled in a waste management program at the moment. I can honestly say that I’ve given up my first-born for the cause. I’ve been begging her to write me some blog posts—she is learning so much!—and she agreed to write one this week.
Written by Mary Katherine Glen
Why am I writing about hazardous waste on a zero-waste blog?
It occurred to me that a lot of you reading my mom’s blog probably don’t buy a lot of hazardous items. But I thought that a lot of you probably drive cars and use fluorescent lightbulbs. I also thought that if you’re reading this and you live with people who buy hazardous items, you could educate them about why these things can’t go in the garbage or recycling.
For unavoidable waste, proper disposal is key
Prevention is the most important part of the waste management hierarchy. Adopting zero-waste habits and avoiding single-use items are the best strategies by far for reducing the volume of waste in landfills. But these tactics are not always possible because our society is not set up in a way that supports zero-waste lifestyles. For the waste that you simply cannot avoid, it is of utmost importance to make sure that you dispose of it properly, particularly if it is hazardous. Many people don’t realize that certain items fall into a category called household hazardous waste. Household hazardous wastes include things like:
- Car fluids and car fluid bottles
- Household cleaners (bleach, ammonia, etc.)
- Drugs, including used tubes of prescription creams with residue in them
- Pesticide containers
- Aerosol cans
- Fluorescent lightbulbs
Why can’t these things go in the recycling?
The facilities where recyclables are sorted (material recovery facilities) are only equipped to deal with materials that can be baled and sold (such as aluminum, paper and certain plastics). They aren’t set up to deal with hazardous waste. Some kinds of hazardous waste can even injure the workers in those facilities, particularly needles and broken fluorescent lightbulbs. Glass has a tendency to break when sent for recycling (more on that another time).
What happens when this stuff goes to landfill?
Landfills produce leachate, a liquid that seeps out of landfills due to water infiltration and the moisture content of certain wastes, such as food waste. As water moves through a landfill, it becomes contaminated with whatever material it comes into contact with. Landfills can contain all kinds of chemicals including heavy metals, plasticizers (such as phthalates), pesticides and drug residues. Leachate has the potential to become significantly more toxic if people mix household hazardous waste items into their garbage.
Before the 1970s, landfills in Canada and the United States weren’t built with liners. Basically, we’d dig a hole in the ground, throw everything in there and call it a day. To make matters worse, back then we used chemicals that are banned now, like PCBs. One of the reasons that we see these legacy contaminants in the environment is because they are leaking out of old landfills. Modern landfills have engineered liners and systems of pipes to collect leachate. The collected leachate is sent to a water treatment plant. But there is always the possibility that some of the leachate will bypass the collection system and end up in the environment, causing surface and groundwater pollution. The toxicity of that leachate depends on what kinds of materials have been added to the landfill.
How do you get rid of hazardous waste?
Prevention is the key here. Work on reducing your consumption of hazardous items if possible. For example, household chemicals like bleach can be replaced with more environmentally friendly alternatives, such as vinegar, lemon juice or sunshine. That being said, some hazardous materials are unavoidable for a lot of people, such as those related to car maintenance.
Hazardous waste should be collected and brought to household hazardous waste depots or drop-off events organized by your municipality. Usually municipalities don’t charge residents for this service, since they have an interest in keeping these kinds of materials out of their landfills. Check with your municipality for information about hazardous waste depots and hazardous waste collection events. Your municipality will likely also have a comprehensive list of what it considers hazardous.
Mary Katherine Glen graduated from the University of Guelph with a degree in Environmental Governance and is now enrolled in a post-graduate certificate program in waste management at Fleming College.