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Dig In and Know Your Trash: Hazardous or Not?

By Stephanie Tsao

We all produce household waste. Beyond the banana peels and plastic wrappers, some common household items need special treatment. If not disposed of properly, certain light bulbs, batteries and unused electronics can be hazardous to the environment and to public health if thrown in with your regular trash.

That is why everyone should take steps to learn what is hazardous.

This post focuses on two common household waste items: compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) and rechargeable batteries.

Compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs)

Have you heard of those swirly bulbs called CFLs? A similar product are energy-saving LED blubs (more formally known as light-emitting diodes), which are becoming more common in cities and buildings as they strive for energy efficiency.

CFLs are hazardous wastes because they contain a small amount of mercury in their curly tubes. If the bulb is broken in a garbage truck or in your house, you can expose other members of your residence, pets and the environment to mercury vapors.

To properly dispose of a broken CFL, the EPA recommends opening a window and airing out the room where the bulb broke for five to 10 minutes. The shards from the bulb should be double-bagged using Ziploc bags. The EPA provides further detailed instructions for disposal on their website.

For unbroken bulbs, keep them in an old coffee can or sturdy container and check your county website to find  hazardous waste disposal sites. Or, you can drop them off at certain local hardware stores such as Home Depot, which offers a CFL recycling program.


Rechargeable batteries

Rechargeable and lithium batteries commonly used in cell phones and computers are another common household hazardous waste.

Your standard alkaline AAA and AA, batteries are considered universal wastes under federal waste regulations and can go in your regular trash. Rechargeable, lithium-ion batteries that are used in mobile phones, cameras, and other electronics cannot go in the trashcan.

Where you can dispose of household hazardous waste

Washington, DC and surrounding counties offer a drop-off locations for hazardous materials.

  1. Within Washington DC, the drop-off location for household hazardous wastes is at the Fort Totten transfer station, located at 900 John F. McCormack Drive, NE. It is open on most Saturdays from 8am-3pm.

  2. Arlington County, Virginia collects CFLs at certain libraries and rechargeable batteries at certain fire stations, which are listed on their website.

  3. Another option is to visit Mom’s Organic Market, which has locations in northeast DC, Maryland and northern Virginia. The market offers a recycling program that accepts a mix of hazardous items such as light bulbs and electronic wastes, but also takes non-hazardous items like old shoes and eye glasses.

  4. You can search Call2Recycle to find areas near you that offer drop-off locations for batteries and old cell phones.

Hazardous wastes are tough to dispose of because of the risks that they pose. Some people may opt for the easy way out: throwing the item in the trash. I recommend learning to identify your hazardous wastes. There are many others, such as aerosol cans and expired medicine.

Know your trash! Know what is hazardous and find out if there are local disposal options. That little bit can prevent a pet or the environment from being exposed to mercury and chemicals.

Further resources:

  1. Household Hazardous Waste. US Environmental Protection Agency

  2. Acceptable/Prohibited Household Hazardous Waste Items. Washington, DC Department of Public Works

Stephanie Tsao is a journalist and freelances in her free time. Outside of writing, Stephanie enjoys hiking, biking and exploring the outdoors. Her views are her own and do not reflect that of her employer.


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