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Be your own hazmat squad

Story Highlights

• Americans stockpile household hazardous wastes instead of polluting landfills
• Drop-off facilities help homeowners get rid of languishing waste
By Jim Kavanagh
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(CNN) -- Americans generally are conscientious about keeping toxic material out of landfills, said Mark Westlund, spokesman for the San Francisco, California, Environment Department. The problem, for most people, is getting rid of it properly.

"People are just sitting on this stuff and don't know what to do with it," Westlund said.

Fortunately, no one has to stay in the dark.

Earth911 is a public/private partnership between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and hundreds of municipalities, private companies and nonprofit organizations. About 80,000 relevant sites are connected with www.earth911.orgexternal link, spokeswoman and former director Anne Reichman said.

You can visit the site or call 1-800-CLEANUP, punch in a ZIP code and get a list of nearby collection sites for a wide range of hazardous materials. The site also features easy-to-navigate information on many other topics.

"It's been our goal to be a one-stop shop for environmental information," Reichman said.

If you can't find what you need there, the EPA provides links to every state's environmental department at link.

To avoid stockpiling hazardous waste in the first place, Purdue University's Household Waste Management programexternal link offers this advice: Plan your purchases carefully, shop mindfully, use nontoxic products when possible, and use up what you have; if any material is left over, give it to someone.

"It all comes down to trying to live sustainably," Reichman said.

As landfills close and environmental awareness grows, many local groups and governments have developed recycling and disposal programs.

San Francisco opened one of the first permanent household hazardous waste collection centers in 1989.

The Household Hazardous Waste Drop-off Facility, run by Norcal Waste Systems, is open three days a week and serves 10,000 to 12,000 customers annually. Manager Paul Fresina said the facility will double its $1 million budget and add two collection trucks and several employees within 18 months.

"San Francisco wanted to make it easy for people to do the right thing by coming to their house," Fresina said.

Property owners pay for the program through their $22 monthly trash collection fee, which Norcal spokesman Robert Reed called a bargain compared to the environmental costs of landfills -- air and water pollution, even global warming.

"Let's talk about all the costs," he said. "That stuff you put in landfills turns to methane. OK, so say you put in a methane collection system. Methane collection only captures half of the methane produced. The rest of it goes into the atmosphere. You know where methane goes after it gets into the atmosphere? The ocean. "

Reduce, reuse, recycle ... then what?

Rechargeable batteries are a source of hazardous waste in virtually every home in America. They're used in cordless telephones, cell phones, portable entertainment devices (MP3 and DVD players), electric razors and toothbrushes, cordless power tools, laptop computers, digital cameras and more.

These devices tend to last a long time and to cost a lot of money, making people reluctant to toss them out, said Ralph Millard, executive vice president of the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation. So they sit around in a garage or an attic until a big cleaning day. That's where the trouble begins.

"In terms of toxicity, the main concerns are cadmium, mercury, lead -- all heavy metals, all found in rechargeable batteries," Millard said. Other component metals include chromium, cobalt, lithium, molybdenum and nickel. Those metals can cause serious health and environmental problems.

The RBRC collects rechargeable batteries and ships them to a plant near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where they are melted down into their basic components, which are separated and resold for other uses. The RBRC's $10 million annual budget is entirely funded by fees paid by about 350 battery and device manufacturers.

The RBRC has set up 50,000 battery collection centers at virtually all major retailers and wireless stores throughout the United States and Canada. You can drop off your spent batteries or devices there, and when the box is full, the RBRC pays to ship them to the recycling plant.

The RBRC collected 5.6 million pounds of batteries in 2006, said media relations manager Linda Gabor. But a new survey suggests only 34 percent of spent rechargeable batteries are recycled, Millard said.

"We're not born with DNA that says, 'Recycle rechargeable batteries'," Millard said. "We have to learn it."

You can find collection centers near you by calling 1-800-8-BATTERY or visiting link and entering your ZIP code.


An employee of Inmetco, a metal-bearing waste recycler, wears aluminized protective clothing as he guides the molten metals of recycled batteries out of a furnace.


To avoid bodily harm and endangering the envrionment, be sure to dispose of chemicals correctly when doing the following:

  • painting rooms
  • sealing decks
  • fertilizing lawns
  • treating pools
  • cleaning grills
  • maintaining cars
  • changing batteries
  • replacing the burned-out light bulbs

For a complete list of hazardous household chemicals, visit the EPA's Website
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