What Is Household Hazardous Waste? Definition, Examples, and How to Dispose of It

household hazardous waste safety warning labels

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Household hazardous waste (HHW) is waste that contains potentially hazardous material, such as toxic chemicals, that we often use in our everyday lives.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers HHW to be any leftover household products that can catch fire, react, or explode under certain circumstances, or those that are corrosive or toxic. This can include anything from paints, cleaners, and oils, to batteries, electronics, and pesticides. The country enacted the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act in 1976 to govern the disposal of both solid and hazardous waste, providing technical and financial assistance for the development of waste management plans and facilities where citizens and businesses could safely dispose of hazardous waste.

HHW is illegal to dump into the garbage, down drains, or onto the ground since it can leach into groundwater, contribute to air pollution, or contaminate the food we eat. Not to mention, throwing HHW into the trash can be hazardous to your local garbage handler, while leaving it around the house can be dangerous for pets and children. Instead, products that contain hazardous ingredients will require special care when disposed of in order to avoid any potential risks. Depending on where you live, this means identifying and utilizing a local HHW program.

Household Hazardous Waste Examples

  • Aerosol sprays
  • Batteries
  • Cleaners and disinfectants
  • Medication
  • Nail polish and remover
  • Perfumes
  • Fertilizers
  • Pesticides
  • Pool chemicals
  • Propane tanks
  • Weed killers
  • Antifreeze
  • Glues
  • Paint and paint thinners
  • Wood finishes
  • Fuel

Environmental Implications of HHW

Although household hazardous waste comprises between 1% and 4% of municipal solid waste, the potential risks to both the environment and individual health are far greater. When HHW is mixed into regular household waste, it can also increase its hazard principles by changing the composition of landfills or reacting directly with the acids, alkalis, and solvents inside the waste-filled environment.

Something as simple as throwing a used battery away in the trash can could have serious environmental implications. Most batteries contain chemicals like lead, lithium, and sulfuric acid that can leak out into the environment and contaminate groundwater or damage ecosystems if they end up in a landfill. Batteries can also short circuit and overheat if it's been crushed or punctured, causing fires. A 2018 study attributed 18% of cardiovascular disease deaths to high concentrations of lead in blood, equivalent to 412,000 deaths annually, while another 2018 study found that rechargeable lithium-ion batteries in electronic waste leached concentrations of chromium, lead, and thallium that exceeded the state of California’s regulation limits.

Many household cleaners like bleach and ammonia are considered HHW because they include materials that are corrosive and react with other chemicals in high concentrations (which is why the bleach cleaners you buy at the store are often diluted heavily with water). When chlorine bleach reacts with other chemicals, it can form chlorinated hydrocarbon, a hazardous substance that’s been linked to renal failure, certain cancers, seizures, nausea, and vomiting when exposed to residential groundwater.

Prescription drugs, including sleep aids, muscle relaxants, opioids, and antidepressants, are routinely found in streams and lakes throughout the United States. According to the United States Geological Survey, pharmaceuticals enter aquatic ecosystems primarily through treated municipal waste plants. When fish are exposed to these chemicals, they suffer from reduced growth and altered escape behavior—meaning that when faced with a threat, the fish don’t escape as efficiently as they normally would, decreasing their chance of survival and potentially altering population numbers or ecosystem balance.

Assortment of pill bottles
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How to Recycle or Dispose of HHW Safely

To find out how to recycle or dispose of your HHW safely, it’s best to start with the product’s label. Be sure to follow the instructions while storing and using your product to prevent any accidents, and refer back to the label for directions when it comes time to dispose of it. On the same page, remember never to remove the labels on HHW products and never store them outside of their original containers.

HHW disposal depends on your location, and while most local municipalities in the United States have free hazardous waste collection programs or operate permanent drop-off HHW facilities, some do not. Each county will have a separate set of waste management rules governed at the state or federal level. Check your local county agencies that manage waste or search for the specific item on the Earth 911 recycling and disposal guide. Be advised that local drop offs might ask for proof of residency.

If your local waste management program doesn’t take HHW, there are private businesses (like Waste Management’s At Your Door program) that will come collect it. For medications, the Drug Enforcement Agency operates Prescription Drug Take Back Days at least twice a year. If you live in a smaller community, they may only collect HHW a few times a year on designated days.

As for recycling, there are likely several local government-run programs in your area that can help households and small businesses recycle HHW. HHW can come in both liquid and solid forms, the latter classified as “universal waste.” Universal waste is typically more widely produced and therefore more common in households and businesses, so retailers are often allowed to collect it for recycling. Home Depot, for instance, recycles batteries, Best Buy recycles electronics, and your local auto repair shop may recycle hazardous automobile fluids like motor oil and antifreeze. Another option is to share or give away your excess HHW (if it is still usable and can be transported safely) to other people who can use them, such as gifting extra paint to a community center or donating your used electronics to a local Goodwill’s E-cycle program.

Close up of aerosol paint cans
By Mykhailo Polenok / EyeEm / Getty Images

Aerosol and spray paint containers are tricky ones, for example, since most are made of steel and are only easy to recycle in the event that the containers are completely empty. A majority of curbside recycling programs will take empty aerosol cans along with common materials like paper and aluminum. Full or even partially full aerosol containers are still under pressure, meaning they can pose a serious risk to waste workers. This shouldn’t be an issue if you completely use up the entire contents of the can, but if that cannot be done safely, the product should be disposed of at your local HHW collection site or at a sponsored HHW event.

Read the Labels

HHW can also be identified from warnings on the product’s label. If the label information includes any of the following, it is most likely HHW and should not be thrown in the garbage, dumped on the ground, or poured down a drain: Danger; Poison/Toxic; Corrosive/Acid; Reactive; Explosive; Ignitable/Flammable; Caution/Warning; Environmental Hazard.

How to Reduce HHW at Home 

To solve the issue of HHW before it begins, consider switching to products that contain less materials that are considered hazardous. Instead of purchasing a separate cleaner for a single purpose, buy one product that will help you accomplish several different tasks. Use mineral or water-based paints for crafts, remove weeds in the garden by hand instead of using pesticides, or whip up a homemade recipe for insecticides instead of purchasing one.

Of course, items like batteries are often unavoidable, but products like multipurpose household cleaners, dish soap, bug sprays, and laundry detergent with natural or eco-friendly ingredients are relatively easy to find these days. You can also always check EWG's Guide to Healthy Cleaning, which measures ingredients against scientific studies and toxicity databases. Some products may even be replaced by multi-use items, such as swapping Drano for a plumber’s snake or using a combination of water and lemon juice to clean your house.