Lifestyle » Vol. 40

Keep our environment healthy with safe waste disposal

By Rachel Shuster

Proper DisposalGoing green can keep us and our planet healthy, but how “green” are we? Some items may not be as safe to throw away as we think. So how do we properly dispose of these items? As this becomes an increasingly important issue, solutions are emerging.

Elizabeth Tomaszewski, facilities systems manager and sustainability coordinator at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, said some common household items shouldn’t just be thrown away.

Thermometers [contain] mercury, toxic to human nervous systems, fish, plants and animals; car batteries [contain] sulfuric acid and cause burns; and household batteries [contain] mercury or cadmium, which poses health threats to people and the environment,” she said.

Other items include refrigerators and humidifiers (which contain substances that, when released, reduce protective properties against radiation) and electronics that may contain lead from solder, mercury in switches, lithium batteries or heavy metals, all of which are toxic to humans, plants and wildlife.

There are some items you may not think could be harmful but are. “Many people don’t know about the safety issues of aerosol products, art and craft supplies, fluorescent light bulbs, antibiotics and pool chemicals,” Tomaszewski said.

So how can we safely dispose of them? Municipal household hazardous waste collection is an option for aerosol products, paints, art and craft supplies, batteries, fluorescent light bulbs and motor oils. There are residential drop-off centers for light bulbs, mercury drop-off sites for thermometers, e-waste drives for computers and electronics, and national medical waste return days.

In Worcester, there’s Operation Yellow Box for syringes and needles and city appointments for items like refrigerators and air conditioners.

Tomaszewski also said consumers should reduce consumption. “Purchase only what you need and no more. If you can’t use it all, share or donate.”

Harmful effects can result from the improper disposal of household items:

  • Aerosols contain explosive elements if crushed or incinerated. Breathing these can be hazardous, as they contain pesticides.
  • Paints, solvents and thinners are flammable and contain heavy metals that cause hazardous emissions and toxic vapors when inhaled.
  • Pool chemicals contain sodium hypochlorite, which can cause fires when it comes into contact with organic materials.
  • Asbestos can cause lung cancer.
  • Batteries contain mercury or cadmium, which poses health threats to people and the environment. The lithium in batteries can cause fires.
  • Fluorescent light bulbs contain mercury, toxic to the nervous system and poisonous to wildlife.
  • Antibiotics poured down drains can kill helpful bacteria in septic systems and harm marine life.
  • A quart of motor oil can contaminate 1 million gallons of water, toxic to fish, animals and plants.

Tomaszewski also emphasized the importance of recycling, including everyday items like water bottles, soda cans, paper and cardboard.

Recycling allows us to reduce consumption of raw materials by reducing the volume of waste materials that must be processed and disposed of,” she said. “Recycling helps to reduce emissions, and less energy is needed to extract and process raw materials to manufacture new products.”

At WPI, Tomaszewski and her team are doing their part. “WPI holds an e-waste drive annually to give students, staff and faculty a way to get rid of their unwanted electronics from home or work at no charge,” she said.

WPI also holds a waste audit on America Recycles Day every year to see what the community is throwing away. Battery, cell phone and small electronics recycling is always available.

Proper disposal, ultimately, offers long-term health and wellness benefits for the environment and community, including cleaner air, water and soil.

For information about Worcester’s residential drop-off center, visit or call (508) 929-1300 for an appointment.

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