Household hazardous waste (HHW) is a big, nasty issue—and it's growing. City leaders are learning that waste from old unlined landfills is leaching into their groundwater, and landfill operators have to deal with (read: pay more money) the handling and proper disposal of these wastes. Plus, workers at material recovery and recycling facilities must separate out these cans of paint, bottles of pesticides, and caustic materials at a greater cost, both to the cities and possibly to their workers' health.

The good news is that more public works departments are handling this HHW appropriately. The bad news is that nearly one-third of PUBLIC WORKS survey respondents still do not collect HHW of any kind. In a recent exclusive survey of our readers, we learned that 32.3% do not collect HHW in their city for a variety of reasons. Many have a program they share with another community due to the small size of the town or lack of funding. In some areas, private haulers handle everything.

Still others don't have a defined HHW program because it's not mandated (9.4%) or because they have little knowledge of how to start one (4.1%). Most public works leaders start a HHW collection program simply because it's the right thing to do. In many states there is no mandate or law stating that a community must have a program like this, but they start one anyway.The Southeastern Public Service Authority (SPSA), the solid waste management agency for South Hampton Roads and Western Tidewater, Va., started a collection program for just that reason. “The program was the right thing to do,” said Chuck Harrell, SPSA's special waste manager. His area wanted to provide residents with a means to dispose of their HHW, and his department concentrates on safety. “We need to protect our assets,” he said, referring to both environmental issues and the assets the department owns, such as garbage trucks and material recovery facilities.


Though HHW is a very small percentage of the waste stream, it can be the most important part. In Spokane, Wash., for example, the recycling rate is 44%, and HHW accounts for 0.2% of the materials collected. The city's HHW collection program was started as a response to a problem, unfortunately.

The town is situated in a valley above an aquifer, and the local landfills (three of which are now Superfund sites) were contaminating the residents' drinking water. “The aquifer and landfill contamination was the main reason we started this program,” said Roger Flint, director of public works and utilities for the city.

The team in Kansas City, Mo., had similar reasons for moving forward with a HHW collection program. “There is a legal requirement that governments have in place a system for dealing with this type of material as part of a solid waste management plan,” said Bill Lewry, city environmental manager. “Here we exist primarily on groundwater, and what goes into the ground eventually will find its way to the water table in one form or another. Most treatment facilities are incapable of removing many of these compounds and chemicals—many of these chemicals have affects of which we are totally unaware at this time.”