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The composition of America’s waste stream reflects ever-evolving consumer preferences and product innovations. As this composition changes, waste companies are called upon to find innovative ways to meet the disposal and recycling challenges associated with these new materials. While this is a challenge for all waste management service providers, those charged with handling household hazardous waste have to be especially vigilant in ensuring safe operation and disposal during processing.

Veolia North America, Chicago, specializes in helping customers safely manage waste and treat, recycle and dispose of hazardous and regulated wastes.

According to Joe Baumann, general manager of Veolia North America, the average U.S. home can accumulate as much as 100 pounds of household hazardous waste over a lifetime, so helping residents find avenues to dispose of this material is critical. By hosting special household hazardous waste collection events and making it easy for citizens to drop off waste throughout the year at the company’s designated facilities, Veolia aims to help residents rid their homes of these would-be hazards.

Changes in the waste stream

While cleaners, paints and electronics remain some of the most prevalent household hazardous wastes that companies like Veolia have to contend with, the composition of the products themselves has changed in recent years.

“The household hazardous waste stream is constantly evolving, and streams can differ by regions across the United States,” Baumann says. “As residents turn to more efficient lighting like LEDs, Veolia North America has seen an increase in traditional fluorescent light bulbs and compact fluorescent lights at our collection events and sites. Conversely, there’s been a visible decrease in the amount of oil-based paints we receive as latex-based paints are viewed as more user-friendly and easier to clean up.”

"The household hazardous waste stream is constantly evolving, and streams can differ by regions across the United States.” –Joe Baumann, general manager of Veolia North America

According to Baumann, a best practice for managing bulbs is packaging them properly. He says that often, consumers place bulbs in whatever boxes they have lying around, which leaves these bulbs more susceptible to damage. For more secure disposal, Veolia North America recommends using specially designed packaging like that offered by RecyclePak, the company’s mail-back waste program, to contain the bulbs so they don’t break.

In regards to paint disposal, Baumann says it’s important to keep paint in the original containers. Mixing paints or placing them in random containers can become messy and reduce the ability for these items to be recycled.

Dealing with batteries

The emergence of lithium-ion batteries in a range of new electronic products has resulted in waste providers looking for better ways to manage these devices.

“Another example of the changing waste stream is the prevalence of lithium-ion batteries, which are growing in popularity due to their rechargeable and extended-life features” Baumann says. “Beyond cellphones, products like electronic cigarettes utilize these batteries and pose unique challenges because the cartridge and the battery are difficult to remove.”

As more electronics manufacturers rely on lithium batteries in their products, the threat to waste management companies grows. Thanks to their propensity to start fires when mishandled or incorrectly disposed of, Baumann says that waste management companies need to be especially vigilant in how they handle these materials.

“In 2017, 65 percent of waste and recycling facility fires in California were caused by improper disposal of lithium batteries,” Baumann says. “These batteries have been known to cause fires that burn for days and even completely destroy waste and recycling plants. Lithium batteries require extra care to process, recycle or dispose of due to the natural properties of lithium. So, the question becomes, ‘How can we safely manage and recycle this material?’”

Baumann says that special considerations need to be taken when collecting and storing batteries. Before disposal, he says that residents should properly package batteries with clear packaging tape on the ends to prevent them from reacting with other batteries or other electrical devices. Additionally, he says that municipal collection facilities need to ensure they are segregating batteries according to type with the ends covered to limit the possibility of a reaction that can trigger a fire.

Community partnerships

Baumann says that waste companies can help proactively address household hazardous waste challenges by making sure they are clearly communicating and promoting disposal best practices within their communities before these materials reach their facilities.

“Partnering with your municipality is key in addressing safety issues,” he says. “Waste and recycling companies can provide information on the hazards of improper disposal, which in turn, can be shared with residents prior to collection events or at collection sites. For example, residents may not know that lithium batteries are more powerful than alkaline batteries and need to be handled with more care, so companies should be sure they are communicating proactively to negate issues before they arise.”

Baumann says that mailers and social media work well for reaching an extensive audience. Some municipalities will place mailers within water or tax bills, similar to how communities communicate brush and yard waste pick-up dates and times. Additionally, he says that notifying the local media in advance is a great way for organizations to get the word out on collection events and household hazardous waste handling best practices.

Baumann says that educating residents on handling household chemicals is particularly important, as mismanaging these substances can be dangerous for consumers.

“Educating residents on the dangers of handling common household chemicals remains critical,” he says. “Residents often mix liquids by accident or attempt to create a ‘super cleaner’ in the home by combining ammonia and bleach. This creates a harmful gas called chloramine which can cause symptoms like shortness of breath and chest pain. Mixing other liquids in an atmosphere with high oxygen levels can ignite a fire.”

Because of the dangerous and unpredictable nature of household hazardous waste, Baumann says that every Veolia staff member is briefed on proper management protocols both at its facilities and at the company’s collection events.

“Prior to every household hazardous waste event we coordinate, the Veolia team will go over the created health and safety plan that can include the flow of traffic for the day, where the nearest hospital is, how to respond to a chemical reaction or crash, or what to do with items the event isn’t accepting,” he says.

To ensure caustic and dangerous materials don’t harm staff, he says that all workers must wear the requisite personal protective equipment (PPE). Depending on the event and location, this may include items such as earplugs or muffs, hardhats, gloves, safety glasses and shoes, respirators or coveralls, vests and full-body suits.

According to Baumann, the proper PPE is especially critical when handling items like gasoline, oil and antifreeze. To prevent breathing in noxious fumes, he says respirators are must-have accessories for workers. While it might seem unnecessary, he says that having the right PPE can help prevent against worst-case scenarios.

“Oftentimes, when we remove items from a resident’s car or receive materials, we don’t know what’s in the bag or packaging. How can employees protect themselves from the unknown?” Baumann says.

Helping facilitate collection

Despite the importance of ridding homes of household hazardous waste, oftentimes communities don’t have the resources to promote proper disposal. Baumann says that legislative and regulatory initiatives at the state and community level can help foster these programs and build awareness.

He cites Wisconsin, which is active in promoting its Clean Sweep initiative, as a state others can model. The Clean Sweep initiative is a grant program that provides reimbursement to communities that collect and dispose of household hazardous wastes, agricultural pesticides and prescription drugs. He says these grants may be awarded to counties, towns, villages, cities, tribes, sanitary and sewerage districts, or regional planning commissions to facilitate better and more uniform disposal practices. 

Additionally, he points to Sherburne County, Minnesota, as a model communities can look to for guidance. Sherburne County’s SCORE program is a grant program that provides money for the development and implementation of initiatives designed to fulfill areas such as electronic waste recycling, paper reduction in schools, special waste removal from the solid waste stream and creating markets for recycled products. Grant programs similar to these support communities in better managing household hazardous streams and reducing the volume of these wastes in homes.

Beyond state and community initiatives, Baumann says that manufacturers can play a bigger role in safe disposal of certain products through extended producer responsibility (EPR) measures.

He cites PaintCare Inc., which is a nonprofit that plans and operates paint stewardship programs throughout the country, as a model for helping residents get rid of old and unwanted paint.

In addition to nonprofits like PaintCare Inc. that focus on specific products, Baumann says that states like North Dakota have been successful in instituting EPR standards for particular household hazardous waste streams.

“In North Dakota, for example, Project Safe Send is funded by pesticide manufacturers through product registration fees in the state,” Baumann says. “Veolia partners with the North Dakota Department of Agriculture in collecting, repackaging and transporting waste chemicals. This program has been so successful, it hit an all-time record by collecting more than 520,000 pounds of unusable pesticides in 2019.”

Making it easy

Though it takes initiative to make household hazardous waste collection a priority, Baumann says that communities that place an emphasis on instituting these programs can set themselves up for successful disposal campaigns.

“Successful household hazardous waste programs happen when a municipality is truly committed from a financial perspective,” Baumann says. “Advertising helps communicate to residents that this service is available across a variety of channels and locations. A financial commitment also supports multiple event dates and locations versus limiting this service to once a year. Ease of drop off and convenience are also important to residents. In the end, these programs keep communities safe as potentially hazardous materials are removed from people’s homes, no longer presenting hazards to children and pets. These programs also provide a responsible means of disposal for residents, which safeguards the environment, including our waterways.”

The author is the editor of Waste Today and can be contacted at aredling@gie.net.