When we moved into our house, we were excited that it came with a little storage shed in the back… until we peeked inside and saw that the shelves were filled with dozens of cans of old paint, souvenirs from what seemed like several previous homeowners’ worth of redecorating. There was a reason that my predecessors didn’t get rid of them: throwing away paint in the trash is illegal in Georgia, as it is in many states. I’m embarrassed to say that, not knowing how to rid ourselves of our inheritance, the paint languished in our shed for nine long years, until we finally got our act together and took it to a special “hard-to-recycle” recycling center that recently opened in our area.
Paint isn’t the only thing that’s illegal to throw in your trash. Depending on where you live, there are a number of other items that need to stay out of our landfills. Take a look at this list, and then check your local waste management company to find out what’s a no-no in your area, or if disposing of certain waste requires some sort of special treatment.
- Paint: Oil-based paints, stains, and varnishes are considered hazardous household waste and should not be put in your trash can. Although in some cities, like mine, you can mix the paint with kitty litter or sawdust first to solidify it, then dispose of it. In other cities, paint should be taken to a household hazardous waste facility. Latex paint, which is not as toxic as oil-based paint, can usually go in the trash if you remove the lid to let it dry out and solidify. Even better, for either type of paint, find someone who might be able to use the paint: donate it to a local school or church, or give it to an organization that recovers and repurposes construction and building materials.
- Mercury-Containing Items: While they’re not as commonly available anymore, older thermometers contain mercury, a highly toxic chemical. Mercury is also present in certain electrical equipment and CFL bulbs. Mercury-filled thermometers are being phased out, but if you do have one and it breaks or stops working, it’s important that you clean up the spill properly and dispose of it correctly at a facility that accepts hazardous waste.
- Food Waste: Beginning this year, in Seattle, it’s illegal to put food in the trash. Instead, the city is encouraging its residents to compost its food waste. While this city is the first we’ve heard to make composting mandatory, other cities, such as Portland, OR and San Francisco have curbside composting programs, some of which are mandatory. We’re interested to see if other cities follow suit.
- Batteries: Most states have laws against disposing of certain types of batteries, especially lead acid batteries and nickel-cadmium batteries (a common type of rechargeable battery). All kinds of batteries, including single-use alkaline batteries, are illegal to throw away in California. In the past, batteries were made with mercury and therefore were prohibited from landfills, but modern batteries are alkaline and don’t pose a threat if they’re trashed. Still, it’s better to recycle them. Although curbside programs don’t take batteries, it’s easy to find a local collection point, be it an electronics store or a recycling facility. Next time, opt for rechargeable batteries, which will last longer and will ultimately save you money.
- Tires: Currently 48 states have laws or regulations surrounding scrap tire disposal. While they’re not hazardous materials, tires shouldn’t be thrown in a dump or landfill for several reasons, among them that they take up a lot of space and they can be unsafe for sanitation workers to handle. Besides, tires can be put to much better use if they’re recycled or repurposed: they’re often shredded and used to make surfaces for playgrounds, athletic fields, or even asphalt. When you purchase new tires, ask the mechanic if they have a take-back program, or search for tire recyclers on Earth 911. Or repurpose them yourself into a fun new element in your house or garden.