How to Recycle Household Hazardous Waste - Public Goods

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How to Recycle Household Hazardous Waste

Ideally none of our garbage would end up in a landfill, incinerator or body of water, but there are some materials that really shouldn’t be there. closeup orange battery on white background

These items, such as batteries and paints, poison the earth much more than other forms of everyday trash. This type of refuse can also endanger consumers, waste management workers and people who live near waste disposal sites.

Let’s say you throw out a can of bug spray along with the rest of your household trash. There is still some residue in the container. On its way to a landfill, waste management workers shuffle it about. Some of the liquid leaks out of the can and touches the workers.

Next the can arrives at the landfill and gradually seeps deep into the earth, eventually contaminating the local source of groundwater. Now people are ingesting a chemical that is designed to kill living creatures.

What Is Household Hazardous Waste?

There are several types of depleted products that can have this kind of impact. The Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] classifies some of them as household hazardous waste [HHW] if they can “catch fire, react, or explode under certain circumstances,” or if they are “corrosive or toxic.”

Here is the list of products the EPA mentions specifically in their HHW guide and related web pages:

  • adhesives (glue, tape)
  • air conditioning refrigerants (liquids that allow air conditioning units to function)
  • automotive oil and fuel additives
  • batteries
  • carburetor and fuel injection cleaners
  • cleaners
  • drain openers (drain unclogging liquids such as Drano)
  • fungicides and wood preservatives
  • grease and rust solvents
  • herbicides (weedkiller)
  • ink cartridges from printers
  • oven cleaners
  • paints
  • paint strippers and removers
  • paint thinners
  • pens
  • pesticides
  • W and metal cleaners and polishers (WD-40 and similar products)

Other government organizations have similar but broader criteria. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, for example, defines HHW as any substance that has one or more of these four characteristics:

  1. The potential to cause violent chemical reaction.
  2. The potential to be dangerously corrosive.
  3. The potential to ignite.
  4. The potential to be harmful to human health (toxic).

Search for local regulations to see how your area classifies HHW. Keep in mind that government officials sometimes use the following synonyms to refer to household hazardous waste:

  • harmful household products
  • hazardous household products
  • hazardous household waste
  • household special waste
  • special waste

“Household hazardous waste” is the only nationally-recognized official term.

What About Harmful/Special Products That Aren’t Technically Household Hazardous Waste?

green blue pink purple paint swatches on white background

In addition to what the EPA mentions specifically as part of their HHW criteria, there are many hazardous or special waste products cited in local regulations, nonprofit guidelines and EPA web pages. To consolidate all the information, we created this complete list below.

These types of waste — both the containers and substances inside — are anything you should handle with one more of the following precautions.


  • directly touch the substance
  • inhale
  • drink
  • eat or ingest
  • flush down the sink, toilet, shower or bathtub, unless on the Food and Drug Administration [FDA] flush list
  • dump or hose into storm drains
  • throw out or place in standard municipal recycling or compost collection (only the proper facilities can do this, and later we will tell you how to responsibly drop off your waste or have it collected)
  • dispose of without special steps meant for that product or substance
  • leave it in your home indefinitely or past the expiration date
  • leave it sitting out in the sun
  • store it in a refrigerator or freezer, unless the instructions tell you to do so

The Complete List (Includes HHW and Everything Similar or Locally Regulated)

  • adhesives (glue, tape)
  • aerosol containers (bug spray, spray sunscreen, spray deodorant, spray paint, air freshening sprays, etc.)
  • air conditioning refrigerants (liquids that allow air conditioning units to function)
  • air conditioning units
  • air fresheners
  • alcohol (the medical kind)
  • ammonia
  • ammunition
  • antifreeze
  • appliances (dishwashers, dryers, microwaves, ovens, printers, refrigerators, toasters, washing machines, etc.)
  • asbestos
  • automotive oil and fuel additives
  • batteries
  • bleach
  • brake fluid
  • carburetor and fuel injection cleaners
  • cigarettes
  • cleaners
  • clothes
  • compact fluorescent light bulbs [CFLs] that contain mercury
  • dehumidifiers and humidifiers
  • drain openers (drain unclogging liquids such as Drano)
  • electronics (Alexa, Apple TV, Blue Rays, CDs and DVDs, computers, phones, speakers, TVs, video game systems and game cartridges/discs, etc.)
  • explosives
  • fire extinguishers
  • fluorescent light bulbs
  • fungicides and wood preservatives
  • furniture and mattresses
  • gas and propane cylinders
  • grease and rust solvents
  • herbicides (weedkiller)
  • hydrogen peroxide
  • insecticide
  • medication, medical devices and medical supplies (bandages, inhalers, patches, pills, syringes, tablets, etc.)
  • menstrual care products with toxic chemicals such as dioxin
  • oven cleaners
  • oxygen or nitrogen tanks
  • paints
  • paint strippers and removers
  • paint thinners
  • pesticides
  • smoke alarms
  • sports equipment
  • swimming pool chemicals
  • thermometers
  • tires
  • toys
  • transformers
  • vehicles (cars, bikes, scooters, skateboards, etc.)
  • W and metal cleaners and polishers (WD-40 and similar products)

Here’s a quick rule of thumb: If it’s not food waste or related, think twice before you trash it.

How to Dispose of or Recycle Household Hazardous Waste

Unfortunately there isn’t a convenient national system for disposing of or recycling HHW. In this case doing the right thing — like in many other aspects of life — might take a bit of work compared to dumping everything in the trash or on the curb.

Here are the most common methods that might be available to you:

Household Hazardous Waste Drop-Off Locations

Check local government codes and websites to see if your area has sites where you can drop off HHW. This approach works best for light batches of waste. Don’t count on it for heavy appliances and furniture — unless you have the time, resources, willpower and strength to haul it.

Disposal Events

Government-run disposal events are like pop-up drop-off locations, but they are usually more convenient and well-staffed. You might receive a mailer or see some sort of public service announcement that provides the time and location. If not, try researching local government websites or contacting a town official.

Some events are for specific types of HHW. For example, the Drug Enforcement Agency [DEA] hosts the National Prescription Drug Takeback Day.

Home Pickups

Depending on the services offered in your area, you might be able to call a government number or local business to pick up certain types of HHW or similar materials. There could be scrap metal companies, for example, that would be happy to haul away your old car. Nonprofits such as the Salvation Army often do pickups as well.

You Can Drop Off Certain Products and Waste at Local Businesses and Government Facilities

Below are a few products and types of waste you can usually return to local businesses or government agencies (we listed the type of business/government body in parentheses next to the item). This approach is best when the products are not depleted or expired.

When trying to figure out where to drop off your waste, remember this basic guideline: the people who made or sold the product will most likely take it back. Also, consider the saying, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” Take a minute to think about who could use these products and pieces of garbage to save money or do something good for society.

  • ammunition and explosives (local police department)
  • appliances (local appliance stores, scrap metal or junk hauling businesses, functioning non-gas appliances can go to Salvation Army)
  • automotive oil and fuel additives, brake fluids, car batteries, etc. (car dealerships, mechanics)
  • cars (car dealerships, scrap metal or junk hauling businesses, Salvation Army — but call first to double check)
  • clothes (local thrift shops, homeless shelters, Goodwill, Salvation Army)
  • fire extinguishers (local fire department)
  • ink cartridges and pens (local office supply stores such as Staples)
  • medication (local pharmacies)
  • paint (if a lot is left, artists and schools tend to appreciate paint donations)
  • tires (tire stores)
  • toys (local homeless shelters, Goodwill, Salvation Army)
  • W and metal cleaners and polishers (any business that makes or repairs machines)

Charities, Recycling Organizations and Waste Disposal Companies

Here are a few national charities, organizations and programs that help people donate, recycle and responsibly dispose of some of the above materials:

Not all of these options are free. Depending on the types of materials and volume of waste, HHW solutions can cost hundreds of dollars or more.

Disposing of Medication at Home

If you aren’t able to deposit medication at a pharmacy, it is possible to responsibly dispose of the products at home. First check if the brand or active ingredient is on the FDA flush list. If you see the item there, it’s safe to flush down the toilet.

For meds that aren’t on the flush list, take precautions so the products won’t harm people or wildlife. The FDA recommends these steps:

  1. “Mix medicines (liquid or pills; do not crush tablets or capsules) with an unappealing substance such as dirt, cat litter, or used coffee grounds;
  2. Place the mixture in a container such as a sealed plastic bag;
  3. Throw away the container in your trash at home; and
  4. Delete all personal information on the prescription label of empty medicine bottles or medicine packaging, then trash or recycle the empty bottle or packaging.”

How to Reduce Household Hazardous Waste

To avoid a lot of this hassle and still be a conscientious consumer, purchase as little HHW as possible. You’ll be saving money and making your home safer, not to mention protecting the environment and your fellow human beings.

Here are a few tips to reduce HHW:

  • Buy natural cleaning products that don’t have dangerous chemicals. You can simply recycle these containers instead of treating them as HHW. Another option is making your own cleaning products from simple, clean ingredients.
  • Check products for hazard labels: “DANGER,” “POISON,” “CAUTION,” “WARNING,” etc.
  • Check products for labels that represent safety or sustainability certifications: ECOLOGO, EPEAT, Green Seal, MPI Green Performance, Safer Choice. If the product seems safe but doesn’t showcase one of these labels, peruse the ingredients.
  • For medications and other medical supplies, purchase the smallest sizes possible. Many consumers buy way too many pills when they get a cold or something like that. Then they are left with nearly full bottles of expired drugs.
  • When you have a cold, try natural remedies instead of drugs.
  • Invest in high-quality appliances and electronics that will last a long time.
  • Check out this sustainable electronics registry.
  • Buy electronics that don’t need batteries.
  • If you can afford to, hire painters, mechanics, handy people, etc. instead of doing the work yourself. They will most likely bring their own products.

We understand that it’s impossible to completely purge your home of HHW. For example, we wouldn’t want you to ditch your fire extinguisher or first aid.

Your Power as a Consumer

It’s not your fault that companies churn out so many harmful products that, once depleted, become even more annoying or dangerous to responsibly deal with. Fortunately there is something you can do, and it’s a lot more convenient than commuting to a safe disposal event or being put on hold while calling for a pickup.

Every time you choose a clean, sustainable brand over a dirty one, you’re using your power as a consumer. If there isn’t any demand for hazardous products, manufacturers won’t make them. In that ideal scenario, we wouldn’t have household hazardous waste in the first place.

Download Our Free Guide to Sustainable Living.

From reducing waste to recycling and upcycling, our e-book shows simple ways to make choices you can feel good about.

Comments (2)

  • Thanks for mentioning that adhesives, refrigerants, and batteries are just some examples of hazardous waste. My brother is thinking about hiring a company next month because he’s contemplating doing a home renovation and speculates there will be hazardous waste. I think it’s a good investment to hire a reputable service that has the equipment necessary to dispose of the material if he decides to do it.

  • Thanks for informing me that batteries can poison the earth and harm the people who work or live near waste disposal sites. That is why it is crucial that we don’t put this item on the trash and recycle them properly by disposing of them in household hazardous waste drop-off sites. My girlfriend and I had a general cleaning last weekend in our apartment, and we gathered around five cell phone batteries that we didn’t know how to dispose of. Now that I’ve read your article, I’ll try to research where the nearest drop-off location for hazardous is, so I can get rid of them properly. Thanks!

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