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Waste Watchers

I got a date recently by calling one of those 800 numbers. I’d never done things this way before, but I really didn’t have much choice. I was told to meet at the Albany city dump by 7 PM last Thursday. I marked my calendar and thought about what I should bring along for the encounter.

On the appointed day and time, I carefully placed a few select items I thought appropriate in the trunk of my car and headed off for my Rapp Road dump rendezvous. I wasn’t particularly excited about driving around town with the materials I’d placed in my trunk. As I drove up Washington Avenue I had the unsettling thought that if someone should rear-end my car the local hazardous-materials squad might need to be called. Another quick-flash fantasy had the state police pulling me over, checking out the trunk and turning me over in handcuffs to the FBI as a suspected terrorist. I drove cautiously.

At the entrance to the dump, a woman was waiting for me. She smiled and asked my name as she flipped through pages of names fastened to a clipboard. I had to sign next to my misspelled name. After checking me in, she directed me to pull over to an area near a variety of large containers where a crew in rugged work clothes and tough industrial gloves waited for action.

I pulled up near the group and opened my trunk. A worker in coveralls, fluorescent vest, hat, protective glasses and rubber gloves took my collection of poisons and brought them over to be sorted for disposal or recycling. I had successfully gotten rid of some of the toxic junk that had collected around my house, and made it to the dump without incident.

My trunk of toxics included an old container of a copper-dust pesticide, two metal gas cans that held vintage fuel for a long-gone lawn mower and a chain saw that hadn’t been used in years, a bright-yellow plastic container with some anti-freeze inside, a bag of aerosol paint cans, and a house-paint can about one-third full of household batteries. I hadn’t done a toxic check around the house for a couple of years and was surprised to find as much as I did.

I had called the Albany landfill a few weeks back and inquired about the date for the next drop-off day for household toxics. I found that the system for bringing such substances to the landfill had changed since the last time I had used the program. One could no longer just show up, display ID and drop off the material on designated days. Now, I had to call a toll-free number (1-800-494-2273) and register in advance to bring in the goods (The city’s Web site still presents the old instructions and little guidance about substances covered). The person who answered my call told me that I could drop off my toxic material on July 10 between the hours of 4 and 7 PM.

Separating certain hazardous household products from the waste stream accumulating at Albany’s “Mt. Trashmore” in the Pinebush is a good idea. It allows for some of the more damaging and dangerous materials one might otherwise dump in the trash to be isolated and handled with appropriate caution. This also reduces the exposure to such substances for trash collectors and the community (via dripping garbage trucks).

It has been estimated that the average American household contains 25 to 50 pounds of hazardous waste, and generates 15 to 20 pounds annually. With such volumes of hazardous materials, it seems particularly prudent for localities to keep their residents from just tossing it in with the curbside trash.

Albany could improve the efficiency of keeping these hazardous wastes out of the trash and the environment by providing better information to its residents through its Web site about the program and what is—and is not—collected. In addition, a complementary effort to reduce toxic household waste should be as important as isolating it from the trash flow.

All of this requires a substantial effort to educate the public about what household hazardous wastes are and to present alternatives that can be used to avoid bringing such substances into households in the first place. By reducing the toxic materials brought into the home, residents reduce their exposure to these substances as well as what they pass on as trash. It seems simpler and healthier to reduce use than try to capture and isolate such substances once they’re on the loose.

In a number of household areas there are less-hazardous substances readily available. Cleaning and yard-care products are two areas where various safe alternatives are available. I use white vinegar extensively in my kitchen and bathroom for cleaning surfaces, to wash windows and, preceded by some baking soda, to keep drains running. I buy the vinegar in gallon high-density polyethylene (no. 2) plastic jugs that the city still recycles (though Albany’s Web site incorrectly lists no. 7 instead of no. 2). Instead of using a specialized chemical brew for each cleaning need, I just use vinegar, which is biodegradable and can safely go down the drain or into the compost heap. I have reduced to a minimum the hazardous yard-care substances around my home by using compost, organic fertilizers, integrated pest-management techniques and human-powered tools.

To find out about hazardous- household-waste collection programs in your community, contact your local sanitation department or check with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s regional office at 357-2234. For a useful listing of alternatives to such hazardous substances, check out the offerings of the Council on the Environment of New York City at Someday maybe the city I live in will make information on alternatives like this available on its Web site and provide up-to-date information on how to dispose of hazardous household wastes.

In the meantime, I’m doing my best to avoid scheduling more dates at the landfill.

—Tom Nattell

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