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Caring for the environment

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Hazardous waste

 

Disposal of hazardous waste: what counts as hazardous?

The safe and responsible disposal of hazardous waste is absolutely crucial. As a general rule, waste is classed as hazardous if it is harmful to humans or the environment. We’ve compiled some info about the most common types to help you understand what counts as hazardous and to manage your waste correctly.
 

Batteries

Batteries aren’t usually the first thing that springs to mind when we think of hazardous waste.

What many of us are blissfully unaware of is that batteries contain one or more dangerous chemicals, including:

  • Lead
  • Nickel
  • Cadmium
  • Lithium

Some even contain mercury, which is one of the most toxic heavy metals in the environment (which is why the classic mercury thermometers we recognise from our childhood are also considered hazardous waste by the way!).

When batteries end up in landfills, their casing corrodes and the harmful chemicals inside them leak out into the environment – firstly into the soil, then into our water supply, and into the ocean.

And this of course equals major problems for wildlife and, as we’re at the top of the food chain, humans too.
 

Pesticides

Pesticides are a family of substances covering everything from insecticides and herbicides to fungicides and more.

They are key in agriculture, where they control unwanted vegetation as well as pests and disease that damage crops.

And they are essentially poisons, so it’s vital that they are disposed of correctly.

Some pesticides are particularly problematic as they remain in the environment for longer. These are banned in countries that signed the 2001 Stockholm Convention – the aim of which is to eliminate persistent organic pollutants.

Pesticides enter the body by being absorbed through the skin, inhaled or ingested, and are known to cause an array of health concerns. Research shows that these toxic substances can even be passed from a mother to her unborn child!
 

Oils

This doesn’t include edible varieties of oil such as cooking oils and vegetable oils, which are of course non-hazardous! Having said that, commercial users of these oils should still arrange for them to be collected by specialist companies. Find out more about disposing of non-hazardous waste oils.

But now back to those nasty hazardous types, which include the following used oils:

  • Lubricating oils
  • Hydraulic oils
  • Motor oil
  • Fuels

Any objects contaminated with these oils are usually also classed as hazardous waste, for example rags or cloths used to apply or wipe the oil.

When oil ends up in the environment, it contaminates the soil and threatens aquatic life.

And it spreads further than you might think: believe it or not, just one litre of oil can contaminate a million litres of water.
 

Some electrical items

Electricals: yet another group of items which many wouldn’t have considered as hazardous waste.

Millions of tonnes of electrical waste are thrown away each year, with much of it ending up in landfills.

When the time comes to upgrade to the latest model, LCD TV monitors, computer monitors and other displays must be disposed of at a dedicated hazardous waste centre.

Why? Because the backlights used in LCD monitors often contain mercury, which – as we’ve already mentioned – is highly toxic.

Circuit boards, lightbulbs and lamps can sometimes contain harmful chemicals, so we can add these to the list of hazardous electrical waste too.

Other electrical equipment, such as some fridges, freezers and air conditioners, also count as hazardous waste as they contain ozone-depleting substances, but more on that later…
 

Solvents

Solvents are highly flammable chemicals that dissolve other substances.

They include ethanol, methanol and acetone, and are found in common household products such as:

  • Glues
  • Degreasers
  • Nail varnish removers
  • Sealants
  • Paints and varnishes
  • Paint thinners
  • Paint strippers

It’s clear from their strong smell that solvents are incredibly potent. But they are much more harmful than people give them credit for.

Solvents should never be poured down a sink or drain, or flushed away. They will contaminate the soil and water, causing harm to living things.

Many solvents are also carcinogenic, meaning they can cause cancer. They are unpleasant substances all round!

Disposal instructions can be found on the packaging of many solvent-based products, but more often than not this will involve taking them to a hazardous waste disposal centre.
 

Equipment containing ozone-depleting substances

As the name suggests, ozone-depleting substances are those that over time destroy the ozone layer in the upper atmosphere. And this results in a devastating rise in radiation, skin cancer and global temperatures.

This category includes the following compounds:

  • Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs)
  • Hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs)
  • Hydrobromofluorocarbons (HBFCs)
  • Halons
  • Bromochloromethane
  • Methyl bromide

Ozone-depleting substances are now being phased out, but they can still be found in many:

  • Refrigerators
  • Air conditioners
  • Fire extinguishers
  • Aerosols

Shockingly, each chlorine atom in these compounds can potentially destroy a whopping 100,000 molecules of ozone.

The good news? The ozone layer can recover, although this will take many years. And only if we continue to handle ozone-depleting substances responsibly!
 

Asbestos

Asbestos is a group of fibrous minerals commonly used in insulation as it is strong and a poor conductor of heat.

It is now banned in the UK, but is still present in many buildings constructed before the year 2000.

When left undisturbed, it poses little risk to health. But once damaged – during demolition, for example – the fibres are free to wreak havoc when inhaled by humans.

Over time, exposure to these fibres can cause:

  • A chronic lung disease called asbestosis
  • Cancers such as mesothelioma, which affects the membrane lining of the lungs
  • Various other lung disorders

Asbestos awareness and safety have greatly improved in recent decades. Tragically, however, around 5,000 workers in the UK still die from asbestos-related illness each year.
 

It’s all quite grim stuff, as you can see. As global citizens, it’s our duty to minimise any impact on the environment or humans as much as possible when disposing of hazardous waste. Find out how we can help you or your company to do this safely and legally on our mainhazardous waste page.
 
Disposal of hazardous waste