Market News

 July 04, 2013
Do you know all the hazardous waste in your home?

 From leftover pills to paint thinner, the average home generates toxic trash.
Thrown out in the garbage or flushed, this hazardous waste puts sanitation workers and the environment at risk. Convincing people to dispose of these products responsibly takes education and convenience, environmental advocates said.

Fewer than a dozen communities statewide have a permanent facility that accepts household hazardous waste like the one opened by the Oneida-Herkimer Solid Waste Authority in North Utica in 1993.

"It's actually completely legal for someone from a household to throw (most of) this stuff in the garbage," said William Rabbia, the authority's executive director. "We set up this facility to try to encourage them and make it as easy as possible to set it aside and bring this to us."

Most communities rely on collection days that take place anywhere from monthly to biannually. Conducting these drives, running permanent facilities and educating the public about proper disposal, however, costs money.

Environmental advocates have been campaigning for laws to shift the responsibility and expense of collection and education to companies that make and sell hazardous products.

"Society is paying for the cost of manufacturers putting toxic materials in their products," said Laura Haight, senior environmental associate with the New York Public Interest Group. "Right now, it's all local government and taxpayers that are paying the burden."

In the final hours of its session, the state Legislature passed a bill putting that kind of responsibility on thermostat manufacturers who now must meet annual quotas for collecting mercury thermostats. Although it's no longer legal to buy or throw out thermostats containing mercury, hundreds of thousands of them are taken out of service and discarded each year, Haight said.

"We know from the data ... that 99 percent of the thermostats containing mercury are ending up in landfills and incinerators," she said. "You have the language in the law, but you need to have a collection system. What's the homeowner going to do?"

A study by a coalition of environmental groups last year found that New York ranked 37th among the states for its per capita collection of mercury thermostats in 2011.

Similar measures already have been enacted in the state requiring service stations to accept used motor oil; retailers who sell rechargeable batteries or products that use them to take back the batteries, which cannot legally be thrown out; and electronics manufacturers to provide free and convenient recycling for electronics.

With about 50 laws proposed in a dozen states, Marjorie Torelli, administrator for the New York Product Stewardship Council, said these kinds of programs are going to become more common. Some already cover not just hazardous products, but major sources of trash, such as latex paint and mattresses, she said.

Many other kinds of hazardous waste, though, are primarily collected through county and municipal efforts, which might not be often enough or well publicized enough for major success.

"In most rural counties, it's typical to have one collection a year," Torelli said. "But for people in large counties, say, like Wayne County, which geographically is pretty large, it can be an hour and a half to travel from your house to the collection site, and people are reluctant."

Advocacy already has worked well on another level - forcing manufacturers to put fewer toxic and hazardous substances in consumer products. The waste stream has gotten a lot more environmentally friendly since Rabbia started working for the waste authority in 1990, he said.

Running a permanent hazardous waste facility isn't cheap - $292,199 this year - but it's worthwhile in terms of safety and environmentalism, Rabbia said.

"It's quite a commitment," he added, "but in the long run, it's better for the waterways and the landfill and the sewer system than to not have it."