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What You Need to Know When You Throw Out Cleaning Supplies

written by: Beth Janicek•edited by: Tania Cowling•updated: 5/12/2010

With so many different chemicals in household products, you shouldn't throw out cleaning supplies without ensuring you're doing so safely. Some supplies can be flushed, but others should be collected by a household hazardous waste facility. Here's a primer on how to go about disposing safely.

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    If you’re itching to throw out cleaning supplies you no longer use, whether to buy replacements or pursue a greener cleaning regimen, first educate yourself on the proper way to do so. Each product is a little different, so it’s important to take the proper action to ensure your efforts aren’t in vain.

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    Why It Matters

    With different products for tubs, tiles, floors, furniture, carpets, sinks, ovens, and more---and with today’s cleaning supplies coming with ingredients that include ammonium hydroxide, formaldehyde, ethoxylated nonly phenols, trisodium nitrilotriacetate, and many other ingredients few consumers (if any) recognize, there are a lot of chemicals in our households that we know little about.

    Simply dumping these chemicals in the trash or down the drain can contaminate groundwater and drinking water, and can kill plants, animals, and microbes, damaging the fertility of land and water and harming humans, too. Understanding the correct disposal methods for different cleaners helps protect the soil, the water supply, and the ecosystems and communities that rely on each. Once you’ve learned how to properly dispose of cleaning supplies, you’ll feel good knowing you’ve taken responsible action.

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    Household Cleaner Disposal Options

    Things you should not do include putting liquid in the trash (even in a container), burning or burying waste, dumping something down the drain without making sure it’s safe, and otherwise disposing of any chemical (even seemingly mild) without checking. In some cases, dumping cleaners is illegal.

    There are basically two choices for how to throw out cleaning supplies you don’t plan to use, and which is appropriate depends on the cleaner itself. They are:

    1. Dump down the drain (or flush down the toilet): acceptable for certain chemicals, especially those that are water-soluble.
    2. City/County Household Hazardous Waste collection: a safe, controlled choice for many toxins.
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    How HHW Collection Works

    Household Hazardous Waste collection is offered in almost every municipality that organizes trash pickup and/or recycling. Often at a central drop-off point, the waste disposal agency (or private company) will collect unused portions and semi-full containers of many hazardous products, as an alternative to residents who would otherwise throw out cleaning supplies.

    Once collected by the waste disposal company, your household hazardous waste products are sorted according to the type of chemicals they contain, and are then usually shipped (securely) to a facility prepared to process them. Chemicals may be neutralized (by mixing them with other specific chemicals) and the remaining water runs through water treatment facilities. Or the chemicals may be burned to destroy the harmful ingredients and use the resulting heat as a fuel source.

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    Deciding Which Disposal Is Right For Certain Cleaning Products

    Generally, if the product works by mixing it with water (in other words, it’s water soluble), it’s a strong candidate for being flush-able. Most other chemicals need to be disposed by a professional. This is just a general guideline; there are always exceptions, so never assume.

    There are three ways to determine the proper disposal for your cleaning supplies:

    1. Read the product label to search for specific instructions. Call the 800-number if none is on the packaging; the company should be able to provide any necessary information about disposal.
    2. Contact the HHW facility in your area to see what they can take and what you need to do to contribute it properly.
    3. Research ingredients listed (if listed) in your household cleaner and find out what they do to the environment and how they’re best disposed of. The EPA website is a good source of information on specific toxins.

    When you throw out cleaning supplies, you’re forced to face how hazardous some of their ingredients are. If you’re not already, this process may soon find you in search of green cleaning supplies, to limit the exposure to chemicals you experience in your home.

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    References

    “Household Cleaners," Earth 911 - http://earth911.com/recycling/household/household-cleaners/

    “Disposal Guide – Cleaning Products," http://www.purdue.edu/envirosoft/housewaste/src/open.htm

    “What Can I Do?", Soap and Detergent Association - http://www.sdahq.org/environment/whatcanido.cfm