Getting a handle on hazardous waste

Patricia Robertson Who thinks of a can of whipping cream as hazardous waste? Not the cream itself, of course. But the aerosol can it comes in is a hazard even when empty. It's a compressed container and therefore explosive.

by Patricia Robertson

Who thinks of a can of whipping cream as hazardous waste?

Not the cream itself, of course. But the aerosol can it comes in is a hazard even when empty. It’s a compressed container and therefore explosive.

That comes as a big surprise to most people, says Sabine Schweiger, Whitehorse’s environmental co-ordinator. Twice a year she puts together the city’s Household Hazardous Waste Day, a partnership program between the Yukon government and the territory’s municipalities.

“Walk down the cleaning aisle in your grocery store and look at the volume and number of materials you can purchase freely that carry the toxic symbols on them. When a product is new, we don’t think of it as a hazardous waste. It’s at the point of disposal that we realize we have to treat it differently.”

Why do we need to dispose of hazardous waste differently from other garbage? “When we landfill (hazardous waste), there’s the perception that it’s contained, but it’s not. Over time containers corrode and leak and those materials then potentially get into groundwater sources. Cans under pressure can also explode.”

For most of us, hazardous waste means outdoor items such as leftover paint products, waste engine oil, and half-empty containers of pesticides or weed killers. But Schweiger provides a much broader definition.

“First, it’s a product you no longer want or is no longer useful for its intended purpose, and now it needs to be disposed of. Two, it carries one or more of the (hazardous waste) symbols: poisonous, flammable, explosive, or corrosive.”

That includes under-the-sink items such as oven cleaner and other toxic cleaning products, as well as that half-used can of hair spray in your bathroom. Then there’s those leftover cans of propane from camping trips or barbecues. Fluorescent tubes are toxic, too.

So are the new compact fluorescent light bulbs, because they contain mercury – another surprise for many people.

“We anticipate handling a lot of these in the next three or four years as the first ones reach the end of their life,” Schweiger says.

The biggest source of hazardous waste by volume is automotive products, especially waste oil. On Household Hazardous Waste Day, crews usually fill at least one, and often two, poly tanks.

“If you’re changing your own oil in your vehicle, it’s important not to allow water to get into the waste oil because it’s more costly to recycle.” Leftover antifreeze and used brake fluid should be kept separate from the oil, too.

Latex paints aren’t toxic, though household hazardous waste crews pop the lids and let the paint dry out completely. “Then it can be disposed of in the landfill because it’s no longer a hazard,” explains Schweiger. “It’s inert, like a piece of painted wood. But it has to dry out first because if it goes in our collecting truck the cans may explode and there’ll be fresh paint everywhere.”

Other products used in painting are toxic, however.

“What we want are your old wood-staining products and your used paint thinners from cleaning brushes with oil-based paints.” And those aerosol cans of spray paint, too.

On Household Hazardous Waste Day, trained crews separate the materials by category according to the nine different classes set out in the Transport of Dangerous Goods Act: explosives, gases, flammable liquids, flammable solids, and substances that are oxidizing, infectious, radioactive, corrosive, and miscellaneous.

Each class of material is packed in a labelled 45-gallon drum with appropriate packing material. Mercury thermometers, for example, are packed in water so that mercury vapour doesn’t form if they break. The household hazardous waste crew is trained in doing simple tests to identify products that aren’t in their original containers. (If they still can’t, the item goes in a drum marked unknown). Drums are sealed when full, collected by Environment Yukon at the end of the summer, and shipped out of the territory for treatment through the department’s commercial waste collection, a publicly tendered annual contract for commercial waste generators.

“We estimate about 70 per cent of our waste is recycled if we include recovery such as waste fuel,” says Bryan Levia, manager of monitoring and inspections with the environmental programs branch of Environment Yukon. The government regulates the use of waste fuel, which is used in waste oil burners around the territory. The remaining 30 per cent of Yukon’s waste is sent to a secure landfill with liners and leachate collection, or is destroyed through chemical or thermal (burning) processes.

“The best thing is to reduce the number of hazardous products you’re buying,” Schweiger says. “Purchase real whipping cream and avoid the hazardous container. Use baking soda and elbow grease to clean your oven.” The cost of hazardous waste disposal is high, and unlike some other jurisdictions, is not currently included in the product purchase price.

“Buy only what you need, and use everything you buy,” adds Levia. “And if you don’t have an (hazardous waste) event in your community, organize one. We’ll provide all disposal, all staff, and $1,000 to help a community group conduct the event.”

Spring Household Hazardous Waste Day will be held in Whitehorse on Saturday, May 28 at the city landfill from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (note the 4 p.m. closing to allow the crew to complete the job of securing and cleaning up the site). Drop-off of hazardous waste materials is free of charge.

This column is co-ordinated by the Northern Research Institute at Yukon College with major financial support from Environment Yukon and Yukon College. The articles are archived at