What is Hazardous Waste and How Do I Dispose of It?

Hazardous waste is unwanted or unusable material that can be unsafe to humans or the environment if thrown out improperly. It comes in many forms and from many sources, including normal, everyday household products such as cleaning supplies, electronics, appliances and more.

If you come across hazardous waste while cleaning up at home, it’s important to know how to dispose of it since it cannot be handled like other trash items. Learn how to keep yourself, your community and your local environment out of harm’s way with our guide to hazardous waste items.

Jump to: How to Dispose of Hazardous Waste

How to Tell if Waste is Hazardous

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, there are three main types of hazardous waste: listed, characteristic and mixed radiological wastes.

Listed and mixed radiological wastes typically include industrial wastes from manufacturing practices such as iron and steel production, petroleum refining, or processes involving radioactivity.

Characteristic wastes are more common – they are materials that are either flammable, corrosive, reactive or toxic, and can be found in almost every home. We’ve broken down these four hazardous waste characteristics, along with their international GHS Hazard Symbols, to help you identify and dispose of dangerous materials more easily.

What are the GHS Hazard Symbols?

The Globally Harmonized System for Classifying Hazardous Chemicals (GHS) is a system used to standardize the labelling of hazardous products. Originally developed by the United Nations, the system was designed to make it easy to identify dangerous materials at a glance, and has been adopted in most major countries around the world.

Though the symbols, also called pictograms, were not designed to classify hazardous waste items, they often correlate to the four hazardous waste characteristics as defined by the EPA. For example, a product with the ‘Flammable’ GHS symbol on its label would more than likely be classified as flammable hazardous waste by the EPA.

There are 9 GHS symbols used on labels to alert consumers to various physical, health and environmental hazards within certain products. When thrown away, each of these hazardous material types can be considered either flammable, corrosive, reactive or toxic wastes. Read on to learn more about these substances and how to dispose of each accordingly.

Waste is considered hazardous if it is:

Flammable Hazardous Waste Symbol

Flammable

Flammable, or ignitable wastes are materials that burn easily or can rapidly worsen an existing fire. Flammable hazardous waste can be in either solid, liquid or gaseous form. Liquid flammable wastes are fluids that have a flash point – or can catch fire – at temperatures below 140 degrees Fahrenheit. No matter which form you’re dealing with, it’s important to throw flammable items away properly, as they can catch fire if tossed in the regular trash. Something as small as a spark from the garbage truck or a lit cigarette can turn flammable hazardous waste into a major blaze in just a few minutes.

Oxidizing Agent Symbol
Oxidizing Agent Symbol

Examples of Flammable Hazardous Waste

  • Nail polish remover (Acetone)
  • Rubbing alcohol (Isopropyl alcohol)
  • Diesel fuel, motor oil and kerosene
  • Cleaning solvents
  • Matches and flares

What is an oxidizing agent?

Oxidizing agents, or oxidizers, are chemicals that give off oxygen when they come into contact with other substances. Because oxygen feeds flames, oxidizers can intensify an existing fire. They can also react with other chemicals dangerously. They are found in a variety of household products. Some oxidizers, like hydrogen peroxide, are safe to use and can be disposed of normally. Others, like pool chlorine, furniture polishes or fertilizers with ammonium nitrate, can release toxic fumes or react explosively with other chemicals or flames. Products with the Oxidizing Agent symbol should be disposed of properly at a hazardous waste facility, or as directed on the product’s packaging.

Corrosive Materials Symbol

Corrosive

Corrosive wastes are extremely acidic or basic materials that can damage human skin on contact and sometimes eat through metal. They pose a serious risk to waste workers and the environment without the proper precautions. Some are strong enough to erode heavy-duty containers – including steel drums, dumpsters and trash bins. Some of these wastes can also contaminate groundwater and harm aquatic life in the surrounding area if thrown out improperly.

Examples of Corrosive Hazardous Waste

  • Chlorine bleach
  • Rust remover
  • Oven cleaner
  • Automotive lead-acid batteries
Reactive Materials Symbol

Reactive

Reactive wastes are materials that are unstable under regular conditions. Many reactive wastes are considered explosive materials. Some may explode under normal pressure or temperatures, while others may react when exposed to water. Compressed gases, including unemptied aerosol cans, run the risk of exploding in the heat of a landfill, or in the garbage truck compressor. However, reactive wastes do not always explode – some may release toxic gases when exposed to other common chemicals. These fumes can cause serious chemical burns to a person’s eyes, nose, throat and more.

Compressed Gases Symbol
Compressed Gases Symbol

Examples of Reactive Hazardous Waste

  • Fertilizer (Ammonium nitrate)
  • Propane and oxygen tanks
  • Partially filled aerosol cans
  • Ammunition
Toxic Materials Symbol

Toxic

Toxic wastes are materials that can be harmful or deadly if consumed or absorbed into the skin. Some toxic wastes can cause severe eye or skin irritation, respiratory issues, and even environmental contamination if not disposed of properly, which can impact the local ecosystem and watershed.

Biohazardous or infectious materials, including used needles, can also be considered toxic waste. While the symbol for biohazardous or infectious materials is included in the UN Model Regulations, it is not considered part of the GHS due to the nature of the hazard.

Harmful Materials Symbol
Harmful Materials Symbol

Examples of Toxic Hazardous Waste

  • Medications
  • Antifreeze
  • Pesticides
  • Compact fluorescent lightbulbs
Health Hazard Symbol
Health Hazard Symbol
Environmental Hazard Symbol
Environmental Hazard Symbol
Biohazardous Symbol
Biohazardous Symbol

What Is Hazardous Waste? A Guide to the EPA's Four Hazardous Waste Characteristics

What is Household Hazardous Waste?

Household hazardous waste, sometimes abbreviated as HHW, is flammable, corrosive, reactive or toxic waste that, as its name suggests, can be found around the house. It includes a wide variety of cleaners, chemicals and other materials that many people use every day. While they may be safe when used correctly in the home, throwing household hazardous waste items in a trash bin or dumpster can pose a risk of fires, dangerous chemical reactions, explosions, environmental contamination and more during the normal disposal process. Check out the tips below to learn how to handle some of the most common forms of household hazardous waste.

How to Properly Dispose of Hazardous Waste Items

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Batteries

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Automotive batteries, which contain lead-acid cells that are extremely corrosive, can be extremely dangerous if thrown away in your weekly pickup. You should always recycle car batteries at an appropriate facility. Many major auto retailers will accept car batteries at their locations, including AutoZone, O’Reilly Auto Parts and even Walmart Auto Services.

Rechargeable batteries from laptops and other electronics can also be hazardous in the regular trash, as they can catch fire or leak toxic and corrosive chemicals if compressed. You can recycle electronic batteries at several major retailers including Best Buy, The Home Depot, Lowe’s and Sears.

You can dispose of single-use batteries in your normal trash in almost all states except California, where they should be taken to a recycler or hazardous waste facility.

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Railroad Ties

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Railroad ties are never accepted in dumpsters and can be difficult to dispose of. They are treated with the toxic preservative creosote, which makes them hazardous to handle. 

According to the EPA, you may be able to dispose of creosote-treated wood with your usual trash pickup, but local governments may have specific guidelines or instructions for disposing of railroad ties, so it’s important to check with your state or city waste management program before doing so.

Because railroad ties are considered commercial waste, they might not be accepted at your local hazardous waste facility. However, your local facility may be able to point you in the direction of a local organization who can take them. Some choose to reuse railroad ties in their landscaping, but due to the toxic preservatives, this may not be safe for plants or animals in your yard. You may be able to haul railroad ties to your local solid waste or construction and demolition debris landfill; call ahead to make sure your items will be accepted.

Finally, your local Habitat for Humanity chapter may be able to reuse your old railroad ties in certain building projects.

When handling and disposing of railroad ties, use gloves and other protective clothing to prevent direct skin contact with the treated wood. Never burn creosote-treated wood and wear goggles if you plan to saw the lumber in half. Wash all work clothes in a separate load of laundry immediately after handling railroad ties

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Oil-Based Paints and Other Solvents

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Many heavy-duty household cleaners are, or contain, solvents that are extremely flammable. This includes oven cleaners, home deodorizers, flooring and carpet cleaners, varnishes, polishes, waxes and disinfectants, as well as old, oil-based paints. The best way to dispose of household solvents is to use them up or take them to a household hazardous waste collection program. For a full list of household solvents and how to dispose of them, contact your local solid waste management facility.

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Pool Chemicals

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Chlorine and other swimming pool products can be recycled or used up in your own pool or a neighbor’s pool. You can also consider donating them to a local community pool. If you can’t find a fellow pool owner to use them up, take your old pool chemicals to a local household hazardous waste facility.

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Matches and Flares

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Matches should be soaked in water for a few minutes before being thrown away. You can also use them up in your fireplace or fire pit. Flares and fireworks should be soaked overnight and securely double-bagged so they do not dry out. Then, you can throw them in the trash or take them to your local solid waste facility for disposal. 

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Ammunition

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Bullets and other ammunition should never be thrown away in the usual trash, as they can be ignited when the garbage compactor runs, which can send the bullets flying every which way. You may be able to take old ammunition to your local police department or fire station, but call their non-emergency line ahead of time to confirm. A local gun range may also be able to help you dispose of any unwanted bullets you have.  

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Bleach and Other Bathroom Cleaners

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Bleach and many other tub and toilet cleaners are made up of strong acids which can be corrosive and harmful to human skin. Unused cleaning materials can be used up or shared. If you have under five gallons of bleach, it can be flushed down a clean toilet with no other chemicals, and the container can be recycled.

Be very careful not to mix different bathroom cleaners, especially bleach, ammonia and lye. When combined, these chemicals can release dangerous, noxious gases into your home.

If you have a septic system, it’s best to minimize your use and disposal of bleach and ammonia. Both chemicals can react inside your septic tank to create chlorinated hydrocarbons, which can be a health hazard.
 

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Biohazardous Materials

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Medical waste can be toxic or health hazardous and should be handled carefully and disposed of at an appropriate facility. Old prescriptions can be taken back to your pharmacy or a dedicated disposal location.

Sharps should never be thrown loosely in the trash or toilet, and guidelines for disposal can vary from state to state – find the best sharps disposal option near you to ensure your waste is handled properly.

Most modern thermometers can be simply thrown away, but dispose of mercury thermometers properly to avoid contamination.

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Compact Fluorescent Lightbulbs (CFLs)

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CFLs contain mercury which, if thrown into a dumpster or trash bin, can leak out into the environment. For this reason, it’s important to recycle these bulbs properly. Several major retailers offer CFL recycling programs, including Lowe’s and The Home Depot. 

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Pesticides

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Pesticides, weed killers and other landscaping chemicals are toxic and should be handled and disposed of as directed on their containers. When in doubt, most can be taken to a local hazardous waste facility as long as the chemical was produced for residential use, not commercial. To learn more, check out the National Pesticide Information Center’s pesticide disposal guide

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Car Chemicals

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Most car chemicals are highly flammable and/or toxic to humans, plants and animals, and therefore should not be thrown away without the proper precautions. It’s best to use up gasoline and diesel either in your vehicle or a neighbor’s, but if you cannot, take it to a hazardous waste facility.

Motor oil can be recycled at most automotive retailers, including AutoZone, Lube Stop and O’Reilly Auto Parts. Brake fluid and antifreeze can also be taken either to an auto shop or a hazardous waste facility. 

Never dump automotive chemicals down drains or toilets.

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Aerosols and Compressed Gas Tanks

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Aerosol cans are allowed to be thrown in a trash can or dumpster once they’ve been completely emptied, as unemptied aerosol cans could explode if compressed. Do not spray aerosols into the air to empty them – try to use them up if possible. If you’re dealing with an expired aerosol that contains harsh chemicals, such as old spray paint or oven cleaner that should no longer be used, take your cans to a hazardous waste facility near you to have them processed safely. 

Oxygen cylinders and helium tanks can be opened and drained before being taken to a local recycling facility. 

Empty 20-pound propane tanks can usually be recycled through the company from which they were purchased, if you do not want them refilled. Smaller propane or butane canisters (under 2 pounds) cannot be refilled and should be recycled at a local metal scrap yard.

Other compressed gas tanks should be handled on a case-by-case basis depending on their contents.

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Asbestos

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If you’re updating a home that was built before 1980, you may run into asbestos at some point during your project. Ideally, it’s best to leave asbestos alone and untouched – the removal and disposal process can be expensive and hazardous to your health and others’ if done improperly. However, if you can’t avoid disturbing it, call an expert. Search for qualified asbestos testing and abatement programs in your area to find the best disposal solution for your situation. 

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Contaminated Soil

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You cannot throw contaminated soil into a dumpster or the regular trash; however, there are services that can help you excavate and treat the soil safely. Start by finding a qualified soils engineer near you who can test and identify the contaminants in your soil. This will help you find the best disposal solution

Soil can become contaminated by coming into contact with hazardous, man-made chemicals. In residential areas, the most common soil pollutants are lead, arsenic and cadmium, which can come from lead-painted home sidings, wood preservatives, pesticides and fossil fuels.
 

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Appliances with Refrigerants

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Refrigerators and freezers manufactured before 1995 often contain chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) refrigerants, and many window air conditioning units contain hydrochlorofluorocarbon (HFC) refrigerants. These are ozone-depleting substances (ODSs) that can destroy the ozone and contribute to greenhouse gas build up in the atmosphere. This is why you cannot throw these appliances away at the curb or in a dumpster.

If you need to dispose of an appliance with refrigerants, find a local appliance retailer or appliance removal service that can safely drain them of the substances. Many stores offer free or inexpensive disposal with the purchase of a new appliance, but some, including Best Buy, don’t require a purchase and will haul away your old fridge or freezer for a fee.
 

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Industrial Drums

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Industrial drums can contain remnants of hazardous commercial wastes that are toxic or flammable, and should never be put out for weekly pickup or thrown in a dumpster. Certain environmental services such as Heritage-Crystal Clean offer regulatory-compliant industrial drum disposal programs that can handle the waste legally and safely. Search online to find a drum removal solution near you.

Important: Throwing hazardous waste into your trash or dumpster can be dangerous and expensive. Improper or illegal disposal of these items can result in fees and fines. Avoid these by handling your materials correctly. Many of these items can be taken to your local household hazardous waste facility – use Earth 911’s Recycling Search to find one near you.

Frequently Asked Questions About Hazardous Waste

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Where can I dispose of household hazardous waste?

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Waste around the house that is flammable, corrosive, reactive or toxic can usually be taken to a local household hazardous waste facility. However, certain items, including products and chemicals manufactured for commercial use, may not be accepted – if you’re ever unsure, give your local waste management service a call to find out what to do with your items. 

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Are tires considered hazardous waste?

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Technically, tires are not hazardous waste, but they can be tricky to get rid of and can burn for long periods of time if ignited. They have a tendency to trap methane gas within them and rise to the top of garbage piles at landfills, which can cause damage to the covers. Because of this, most landfills do not accept them, meaning you cannot throw them in a dumpster.

Many major auto shops will accept old tires for recycling, but be sure to research how to get rid of tires in your area to find the most responsible disposal solution near you.
 

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Is concrete hazardous waste?

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Concrete and similar inert waste is not considered hazardous, but it is considered heavy debris and can be tricky to get rid of. The best way to get rid of concrete depends on how much of it you’re throwing out.

Large amounts of concrete can be thrown away in a dumpster, but if you have just one truckload, you may want to haul it to the dump yourself or list it in the online classifieds for free pickup. 

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What is inert waste?

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Inert waste is waste that does not decompose and is not chemically reactive. It is never considered hazardous unless it has been contaminated by hazardous materials. Examples of inert waste include concrete, brick, dirt and rocks.

If you have uncontaminated inert waste to get rid of, find the right guide for your debris below: 

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Are microwaves and other appliances hazardous waste?

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While refrigerators, freezers and window air conditioning units are considered hazardous wastes due to their refrigerants, some other appliances, including microwaves, can be considered hazardous for other reasons. Microwaves specifically are considered electronic waste, or e-waste. In some areas, this is treated as hazardous waste, but in others, it is not. Your microwave may have to be recycled, depending on where you live. 

Not all appliances are considered hazardous, and the guidelines for recycling and disposing of them differ from state to state. If you’re unsure how to dispose of an appliance properly, check with your local waste management service to find the best recycling or disposal option for e-waste in your area.
 

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What is e-waste? Is it considered hazardous?

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Electronic waste, or e-waste, defines unwanted electronic devices that are no longer needed or usable. This can include everything from computer monitors to old tube televisions. E-waste can be hazardous due to certain components within the electronics. This includes the central processing units (CPUs) of computers which contain heavy metals like lead and cadmium, the capacitors of microwaves which can present an electric shock hazard, and more.

Each state has different guidelines for handling e-waste. In some areas, you can dispose of electronics in your normal trash or in a dumpster. In others, you may have to take your e-waste to a dedicated recycling facility. When in doubt, contact your local waste management service to find the right solution for your e-waste.

Still Not Sure If Your Waste is Accepted?

Keep in mind that even if a material isn’t hazardous, it still might not be allowed in a dumpster depending on where you live. If you’re renting a dumpster and need to know if your debris is allowed, give us a call at 877-220-6380. Our waste removal experts can let you know what items are accepted in your area.