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How to Handle Household Products Safely

Learn the best way to reduce your use of certain household products, as well as the proper way to dispose of those you no longer need

What to Toss, What to Replace

Illustration by Harry Campbell

It's tempting to toss old paint, leftover cleaners, or even a busted VCR into the regular trash. But throwing away hazardous household products (HHPs)— defined as those with components that are flammable, explosive, corrosive, or toxic—without proper safeguards endangers human health and pollutes our land, water, and air. In addition to items such as paints and solvents, HHPs also include everyday products like bleach, which is corrosive, and home electronics, many of which contain mercury or lead. Bob Broz, an assistant professor at the University of Missouri's College of Food Systems and Bioengineering, offers these tips for reducing your use of HHPs and getting rid of old ones.

Buy Only as Much as You Need

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Many HHPs, particularly liquids like solvents and cleansers, have a limited shelf life. So check labels carefully, and be wary of purchasing items in bulk: Will you really use that entire 12-pack of oven cleaner before it expires?

Give Away Leftovers

Photo by David Clerihew

Your next-door neighbor or even a local nonprofit organization might need the half cans of paint and stain that might otherwise gather dust in your workshop. Community gardens will often accept extra and unopened fertilizers and pesticides, says Broz. Ask around or post an ad on Craigslist; chances are, you'll find a taker for your freebies.

Try Natural Alternatives

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Homemade cleaning products can be a lot less harsh than store-bought versions and carry no disposal problems. You can mix olive oil and lemon juice to make a perfectly fine furniture polish, for instance.

Gather Broken Electronics for One Big Drop-Off

Photo by Jyrki Komulainen

Don't kick these to the curb—your town may fine you for doing so. Big-box retailers Best Buy and Office Depot collect many types of products for recycling, and some towns offer drop-off programs.

Check Local Resources for Disposal Options

Photo by © Independent Picture Service / Alamy

Laws on safe disposal of HHPs vary by location; contact your local sanitation department if you're not sure how to get rid of something. If they can't help you, try your state's environmental agency, says Broz.