Know Your Hazardous Waste

May 23, 2017

In the good old days, homeowners could throw just about anything in the garbage and it would it would end up in a landfill, on a barge or in the ocean. While it’s true that we still have landfills and sadly the ocean is the home for a lot of garbage – dramatic environmental laws have been enacted to prohibit certain items from being thrown away. Recycling has made good on its promise to reduce the amount of garbage that is managed, but there are many things you can’t (or at least shouldn’t) just toss in the garbage.

Local municipalities do their part to properly manage water and land sanitation, but the very first step begins with the individual. Here is a handy reference in case you DIDN’T know that some of these common items (while not exhaustive) need special disposal:


Batteries – even used ones – are full of chemicals that can infiltrate the water supply system and cause serious health and environmental risks if they end up in the landfill. Batteries should be taken to the nearest Household Hazardous Waste (HHW) facility for proper disposal or for recycling.

Light bulbs

Fact: Incandescent and halogen light bulbs can’t be recycled, but are considered non-toxic, so those can be tossed. However, fluorescent bulbs contain toxic chemicals, and should never go in the trash. The switch to LEDs is on – and fluorescent bulbs can be disposed of by contacting or big box retailers like IKEA or Home Depot.

Unused or expired prescription drugs

If you have unused medications, you might be tempted to go all “Goodfellas” and flush them down the toilet, dump them down the drain, or empty into the trash. Resist the temptation and don’t do it. By introducing any chemical into the soil or water supply, it can contaminate the environment. To properly dispose of unused medications, visit or contact your local pharmacy.

Aerosol cans

Spray cans contain propellants and chemicals that make them unsafe to throw away. Since it’s hard to be sure whether they’re completely empty, take them to a local HHW facility to be sure.

Computers and electronics

Commonly referred to as e-waste or Electronic Waste, digital cameras, computers, televisions, printers, iPods, MP3 players, mobile phones and chargers, DVDs, CDs, video and audio tapes, ink cartridges, and other electronics contain dangerous substances like mercury, lead, cadmium, beryllium, and brominated flame retardants. Find responsible e-waste recyclers at, or use a buy-back program offered through the manufacturer.

Hair (human and pet)

Believe it or not - hair is full of nitrogen. Add it to your compost pile to help create cheap fertilizer for your non-edible plants. Perhaps it’s urban folklore, you can sprinkle it around garden plants to keep deer away. If you’re chopping off 10 or more inches of hair at once, you might consider donating it to Locks of Love.

Bacon fat or cooking oils

If poured into the trash while still hot, grease and oil will wreck the garbage bag and create a spectacular mess. Even when solidified, these fats can still cause problems at the waste processing facility. Even worse, pouring them down the drain is a ‘no-no’. As disgusting as it might sound, bacon fat can be strained into a jar and saved in the fridge as substitute cooking oil – ask my grandmother! However, small amounts of other cooking oils can be placed in sealed, unbreakable containers in your everyday trash.

Paints or stains

Any leftover paint, paint thinners, stains, and paint strippers - or the brushes/rollers that touched them - are flammable and poisonous, and should be taken to a household hazardous waste collection center. Alternatively, let the paint can completely dry out by leaving the lid off. Once dried, it can be recycled at a scrap metal facility.

Brita water filters

Maybe you didn’t think of this one, but Brita filters are fantastic - until they’re spent. Instead of throwing that filter in the trash, send it to a local recycling program.

Plastic bags – all of them

They’re everywhere. Even if you diligently use paper or fabric bags at the grocery store, plastic bags are still part of our everyday lives. While many plastic bags, including Ziploc bags, CAN be recycled, most municipal recycling programs aren’t set up to handle them. For proper disposal of these and other packaging containing plastic film, search to find a local drop-off facility.


It is illegal to throw tires in the garbage or dump them along the roadside. The steel-belt inside auto tires can easily puncture the liners of landfills, leading to ground contamination. While not considered hazardous, old tires - if not properly recycled - pose environmental threats. Tires can be recycled at almost any car dealership or tire service center.

Old appliances

Used and broken down appliances that include refrigerators, air conditioners, and freezers contain refrigerants, insulating foams and other substances that are harmful if released into the atmosphere. Contact your local charity for donation or take them to a facility that recycles appliances.

Hopefully this list is helpful in identifying everyday items that have no place in the trash. When in doubt, consider the impact on the environment – the air, the earth and the water. Most items can be recycled or freecycled, but it takes the effort of everyone to keep our environment clean!