We Drink What We Dump – Household Hazardous Waste

Household Hazardous Waste Examples - Lee County, FL
Image: Lee County, FL

Many of us have heard the term household hazardous waste but aren’t sure if we have any at home or what to do with it if we do. What we dump down the drain or toss in the trash can harm us and the environment. Even seemingly small amounts can add up when millions of items are discarded unsafely. Household hazardous waste contains substances that can be recovered like mercury or recycled like motor oil.

This post will help readers identify household hazardous waste, learn about the health and environmental impact of improper disposal, and find out how to get rid of it safely.

What is Household Hazardous Waste?

Household products that contain corrosive, toxic, flammable, or reactive ingredients are considered household hazardous waste and should not be poured down the drain, flushed into storm drains or put in the trash.

Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs - Household Hazardous WasteThe words caution, warning, danger, or poison on containers indicate a product is household hazardous waste. Other items may not be as obvious. Definitions vary by state, county, and city. Here are some examples of household hazardous waste.

Automotive: antifreeze, brake fluid, fuel, fuel additive, lead-acid battery, motor oil, oil filter, transmission fluid

Electronic Waste: cell phone, copier, CRT, desktop computer, e-reader, laptop computer, printer, smartphone, tablet computer, TV

Fluorescent Lamp: circular, compact (CFL), linear, tube, u-tube

Jar Full of Used Batteries - Household Hazardous WasteHousehold: adhesive, aerosol can (non-empty), battery, drain cleaner, mercury thermometer, mercury thermostat, nail polish remover, oven cleaner, solvent

Lawn & Garden: fertilizer, fungicide, herbicide, insecticide, pesticide, rodenticide

Medical: expired or unused prescription, over-the-counter medicine, needle, syringe

Solvent: paint, paint remover, paint stripper, paint thinner, stain, varnish

How Does Improper Disposal of Household Hazard Waste Harm People and the Environment?

Our household hazardous waste can contaminate the air, soil, and water through a variety of improper disposal methods.

Storm Drain Outlet into Stream - Denver, COWhatever we pour down our household drains, onto our driveways, and flush into street gutters eventually ends up in a stream, lake, or ocean. Sewer treatment plants do not remove all potentially harmful chemicals and materials from waste water. Water that goes into storm drains is not treated at all.

When we toss household hazardous waste in the trash it goes to a landfill or trash incinerator. In landfills, toxins leach out of open, broken, or corroded containers into the air and soil, and percolate into water aquifers or run off into waterways. It may also blow up, catch on fire, or combine to create even more dangerous compounds. If burned, household hazardous waste emits toxins into the air and sometimes generates even more toxic byproducts.

Below are a few examples of how improperly disposed of household hazardous waste harms people and the environment.

Motor Oil

Motor Oil - Household Hazardous WasteWhile in use, motor oil and oil filters pick up heavy metals like lead, arsenic, cadmium, and chromium. Used motor oil and oil filters can contaminate water and soil.

Used motor oil is insoluble, coats everything it comes in contact with including plants and animals, and is slow to degrade. The amount of oil from a single oil change (4 quarts) can contaminate 1 million gallons of water.


Solvents are what make oil-based paints, stains, and varnishes spreadable. The solvents evaporate into the air leaving behind the coating. Solvents are also used in paint remover, thinner, and cleaner.

Oil-based solvents contain mineral spirits (naphtha) or petroleum distillates (toluene, xylene) that are toxic and flammable. They release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which are powerful greenhouse gases (worse than methane). These solvents break down in sunlight producing photochemical pollutants like benzene which is highly toxic. Oil-based solvents are persistent pollutants meaning they hang around a long time.


Plants Killed by Herbicide - Household Hazardous WasteAmericans use fungicides, herbicides, insecticides, pesticides, and rodenticides to kill pests around our yards and homes.

These products contain poisons such as atrazine, cypermethrin, diazinon, glyphosate, and malathion to name a few. Household poisons disposed of incorrectly can harm plants and wildlife and contaminate our drinking water.

Products Containing Mercury

Household items that contain mercury include button cell batteries, thermostats, fluorescent light bulbs, old style thermometers, and electronics. Mercury is released into the air, soil, and water by broken, damaged, or burned products.

Mercury exposure can affect the nervous system and harm the brain, heart, kidneys, lungs, and immune systems of people, fish, and animals. A highly toxic form of mercury, methylmercury, builds up in fish and the people and animals that eat them.

Options for Disposing of Household Hazardous Waste Safely

There are numerous ways to get rid of household hazardous waste in a safe and environmentally sound manner. Options vary by area and include:

  • Curbside Collection – some communities provide curbside collection, especially of products that can cause a lot of damage like motor oil.
  • Drop-Off Facilities – are often co-located with landfills. Residents can typically drop off a limited amount of household hazardous waste for free.
  • Collection Events – cities, counties, nonprofit organizations, schools, and even sports teams hold periodic events for people to bring in and drop off household hazardous waste.
  • Reuse Programs – unused or leftover items like paint are collected and made available to the general public for free.
  • Take Back Programs – in some areas retailers who sell items like batteries, fluorescent light bulbs, and paint are required to take back used and excess products free of charge.

Get Rid of Your Household Hazardous Waste

Household Hazardous Waste Collection Event - Temecula, CANow you know what household hazardous waste is, how it can harm people and the environment, and have some ideas on how to dispose of it safely. Use your web browser to find disposal options where you live, then collect your items, and get rid of them safely and in an environmentally sound manner. It’s easier than you may think.

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Author: Linda Poppenheimer

Linda researches and writes about environmental topics to share information and to spark conversation. Her mission is to live more lightly on Earth and to persuade everyone else to do the same.

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