Most of us have containers in our homes that carry "WARNING!" "CAUTION!" and "HAZARDOUS!" labels. These should never go down the drain or into a landfill.
Neither should TVs, computer monitors, ink and toner cartridges. Ditto for pharmaceuticals.
For the past 10 years, the Pennsylvania Resources Council has held events to collect hard-to-recycle items, household chemicals and, more recently, drugs. During this time, public interest in safe disposal has jumped, said Dave Mazza, the council's western regional director.
"People come and will wait in line and thank us at the end," he said. "We have volunteers who give up Saturdays to stand in the rain," like at the July collection of household chemical waste at the city's Second Avenue Plaza.
That day, I disposed of batteries that almost filled a coffee can and got rid of all the containers I had that warned and cautioned of potential hazards. It was heartening to see so many cars in line behind us. We waited maybe 15 minutes. Mr. Mazza said some waits are longer.
"At our first hard-to-recycle collection event this year, at Pittsburgh Mills, we had 703 cars in four hours and collected 75,000 pounds of electronics, filling three 53-foot tractor trailers," he said. "We have people who say, 'I've had this stuff in my basement for 40 years, and I'm so happy to have this opportunity.' "
The next household chemical collection will be from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday at the South Park wave pool parking lot. The fee is $2 per gallon of waste, cash only. You can find the schedule of all Pennsylvania Resources Council waste collection events and all the items they accept at www.zerowastepgh.com or by calling 412-488-7452.
Fees cover less than 20 percent of what the council pays Environmental Enterprises Inc. of Cincinnati to take the waste. The cost for one collection event is between $50,000 and $75,000, Mr. Mazza said.
The rest of the support comes from foundations including the Heinz Endowments and Colcom; companies that include Bayer, PPG and NOVA Chemicals; and cities and counties where collections are held. In 10 years, the council has held 69 events in nine Western Pennsylvania counties, serving 37,000 households and diverting more than 3.5 million pounds of chemicals from landfills.
Cooperating with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the council holds separate drug collections, which accept pharmaceuticals and illegal drugs with no questions asked. State law bars anyone but law enforcement officers from collecting controlled substances in take-backs.
Mr. Mazza said pharmaceuticals have been a particular bane because many people who correctly dispose of cans of paint and motor fluid think nothing about flushing expired bottles of pills down the toilet.
"Trace quantities of these pharmaceuticals are showing up in our streams and rivers," said Mr. Mazza, adding that endocrine disrupters create mutant fish and frogs. In addition, there is no capability for remediating pharmaceuticals at the water treatment level, so our drinking water is affected, too.
"On our DEA days, we have collected 16,000 to 18,000 pounds of pharmaceuticals," he said. "Imagine how many pills that is."
The issue of pharmaceutical waste gets even more troubling because perfectly usable drugs are not transferable. Case in point: a woman who delivered almost $100,000 worth of cancer pills prescribed to her late husband because pharmaceuticals meant for one person can't be taken back to the pharmacy for use by someone else.
"There is someone out there who doesn't have health insurance who needs these, and they're destroyed," Mr. Mazza said. "We have people who bring shopping bags full of pills."
That's a whole other dilemma, and it begs for a change in the law.
So grateful to have the council's service, for some time I have been rethinking my consumer decisions: use up all pills before the expiration date; make sure when buying paint that I buy the right amount; never buy containers that read "WARNING!" "CAUTION!" or "HAZARDOUS!" now that I've discovered the value of vinegar, baking soda and cream of tartar as cleaning solutions.
Batteries are unavoidable. I will be taking all the batteries that die on me, saved up over a year in a coffee can, to the 2014 household chemical collection nearest me.
It's worth the wait. And it's so worth the trouble.