Issues of the Environment: Washtenaw County expands its program to properly dispose of toxic household materials
- According to the EPA, each person in the United States produces an average of four pounds of household hazardous waste each year for a total of about 530,000 tons/year. Some examples of hazardous waste include paint and thinners, chemical cleaning products, batteries, mercury thermometers, motor oil, pesticides, cell phones, fluorescent light bulbs, and lighter fluid When these products are disposed of improperly they can contaminate water or soil, and they can expose people and wildlife to toxic compounds.
- Washtenaw County has offered a drop-off service for home toxics at the Zeeb Road facility for many years, but the service has become so popular that long lines formed during Saturday events. The last Saturday drop-off for 2023 is November 18th. To help keep up with demand, the county opened a new facility in October. The 2,400-square-foot household hazardous waste center at the Arbor Hills Landfill in Salem Township near Northville now accepts items year-round by appointment.
- The new facility is partially funded by a state settlement with GFL Environmental, Inc. over environmental violations and odor complaints from residents living near the Arbor Hills landfill. Affected residents effectively lobbied for the Michigan Attorney General’s Office to pursue the landfill, and the settlement includes requirements for odor monitors, landscaping, and the new facility to dispose of home toxics that will be free for at least 10 years.
- In 2022, Washtenaw County’s Home Toxics program processed more than 536,000 pounds of material from almost 7,000 residents, officials said, and in the decade leading up to that point the amount collected has increased by over 160%.
- To identify material that is HHW, look for words such as 'warning,' 'caution,' 'flammable,' 'toxic,' 'poison,' 'corrosive,' 'oxidizer,' etc. on the labels. The EPA estimates that the average single-family home has about 100 pounds of hazardous household waste building up and posing fire and health risks to those living in the home. The waste often isn’t dealt with until a move. Toxic items should never be flushed or poured down the drain, but many communities don’t offer a dedicated disposal site. The Washtenaw County facility only offers disposal to Washtenaw residents, Northville, and Northville Twp., but EGLE has a database of drop-off spots here. (Source: https://19january2017snapshot.epa.gov/www3/region9/waste/solid/house.html#:~:text=Each%20person%20in%20the%20United,of%20about%20530%2C000%20tons%2Fyear.)
David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and I'm David Fair. And I have a question for you. When is the last time you took stock of all the things under your counters at home, in your basements and garage, and storage spaces? Well, chances are you have a lot of old but toxic materials in there. There are things that need to be disposed of properly, so as not to pose a threat to the environment and, ultimately, people. On this week's edition of Issues of the Environment, we're going to talk about household hazardous waste proper disposal with a look at how it has become easier in Washtenaw County to safely get rid of these items. Our guest today is Theo Eggermont. He is Washtenaw County's public works manager. And I always appreciate your time, Theo.
Theo Eggermont: Yeah. Thank you for having me on and thanks for covering this. It's an important topic.
David Fair: Well, most of us use a variety of products that contain toxic chemicals and think very little about storing them around and in the house. Do you think it's an under-recognized environmental issue?
Theo Eggermont: Yeah. And I think it's the threat that's also becoming more prevalent or more likely that there's a release. I'm thinking about things that people store in their garages. And I know in my garage, you know, from time to time, gets a little water in it. And we're seeing more severe storms. So, just the possibility that some of these items would get released in the environment is actually increasing.
David Fair: I was surprised to read that the Environmental Protection Agency estimates each person in the United States produces about four pounds of household hazardous waste each year. Now, there are over 300 million people in this country. That's a lot of chemicals. You have any sense of how much of that ends up being improperly disposed of? Are we close to 50% proper disposal?
Theo Eggermont: I guess we would be under that. I think we do a better job in Washtenaw County than a lot of counties because we do have these places located within our county where we have pretty good accessibility. We're always trying to improve that. But, yeah, just my assumption is often people are moving out of somewhere quickly or trying to get out of somewhere, and they don't think about how to get rid of those chemicals properly until it's kind of in the rush mode of getting out of their place. So, we encourage people to take care of it regularly, so that they're not in that rush trying to get rid of these materials at the end of a move or something like that.
David Fair: Right. And when we thoughtlessly and, you know, not necessarily maliciously, but without thought, to put them in our garbage, it ends up in the landfills. And that, of course, can then leach into the ground and, ultimately, the groundwater, which has a wide range of effects. Do we consider, as a general population, the consequences of what seems like an innocuous action?
Theo Eggermont: No, I mean, unless I was in this industry, I probably wouldn't think about it, to be honest.
David Fair: Right.
Theo Eggermont: I think it's one of those things that often we, as with our recycling or our trash or any of these things, don't think about what happens when it goes away, which we all know that there is no way that things stick around. So, just being conscious of there is a proper way to get rid of these and that we do have programs that can help you get rid of these materials properly, so they're not getting released into the environment is important.
David Fair: 89 one WEMU's Issues of the Environment conversation with Theo Eggermont continues. He is Washtenaw County's public works manager. And, to this point, Theo, I've been talking rather broadly about home toxics and hazardous household waste. Some of those items are relatively obvious. But what are perhaps some of the items that we don't think about so much in those terms and that we may be mistakenly throwing in the garbage?
Theo Eggermont: Yeah, I think there's a wide number of categories. There's some things that are fine to go down the drain. Sometimes, we get things like soaps or things that people use in the shower, shampoos, conditioners and whatnot, those are fine to put in your trash because they go down the drain. You know, I'm thinking about things that also go down the drain, like Drano, which is very potent, and those are pretty strong acids and bases. We want to get rid of those properly without those going down the drain. There's other things that are very serious that I would put in a category that are unto themselves, like mercury, where if you have a mercury spill, say, an old thermostat on your wall. There was a couple of years ago, someone had one fall on their piano, and it broke in their piano. And they tried to clean it up, and some of it went down the drain. And so, they had to properly dispose of their piano because that was contaminated. They had to tear out their entire sink and their drain because that was contaminated. Mercury is one of those that it's just above and beyond. It is very, very expensive to get rid of it if it is released within your apartment or your house. And we recommend just getting those thermostats off your walls. And to us, we handle those very carefully to make sure that those get some special care. There's other things, like paint, that we get a lot of. That is considered non-hazardous, but when it's dry, it's something that you can actually put in your trash. When it is wet, it should not go into a landfill. And we want to have that either dried out at someone's home, or they can dry it out and then dispose of it, or they can bring it to us when it's wet. But that's just for latex. If there's an oil-based paint, we always want that because it's flammable.
David Fair: In 2022, the Washtenaw County Home Toxics Program processed more than 536,000 tons of materials---or pounds of materials. And the report also shows that in the decade leading up to that figure, home toxics collections increased by 160%. Now, that's great. But the question becomes are we using more of these products and generating more of this waste or just getting better at keeping out of the traditional waste stream?
Theo Eggermont: Not to toot our own horn, but I think a lot of that is we've done more outreach to the community, and we've improved our services. And so, we're seeing a lot of that outreach resulting in increase in pounds that we're getting in from the community. So, we're seeing a lot more customers. And so, we anticipate that the pounds and the tonnage would follow that.
David Fair: Well, once again, we are talking with Washtenaw County Public Works manager Theo Eggermont on 89 one WEMU's Issues of the Environment. And, as you mentioned, a lot more people are aware, they've been educated and are doing a better job. A number of times a year, the county has held hazardous waste drop off events at the Home Toxic Center over on Zeeb Road. The last of which for 2023 took place this past Saturday. Now, anyone who was loaded up and headed over there knows the lines can be somewhat unruly, not just an inconvenience for people dropping it off, but I imagine an unruly workload for the staff there as well.
Theo Eggermont: Yeah. And we're changing our service next year to be appointment only. So, that's something that'll be a big change. And we're going be doing a bunch of outreach and education this winter and in the spring to let people know that we've done that with our county cleanup days. And customers and residents found it was very helpful for them because they had to wait in line a lot less. And also, staff really appreciated it. It allows us to handle materials more safely in a relaxed manner, which is a good idea when you're handling things that, if they're dropped, pose a pretty big threat and would require some additional cleanup if we would have to do that kind of thing. So, we are excited to move to that starting next year in 2024.
David Fair: Well, another advantage is that, earlier this fall, you opened a new facility over on Five Mile Road in Salem Township near the Arbor Hills Landfill. And that home toxics center already operates by appointment only. Correct?
Theo Eggermont: Yes, that's right. We've had about 175 people in October visit that center. And it's a great way that residents can access our services year-round during weekdays by appointment. So, there's no wait there. And it may be a little bit of a hike for some folks, but especially if you're in that category of people that are moving or you don't want to wait in line, provides a really great service out there. And it's also great for staff because we used to have weekday service here at Zeeb, and we offer that now at the HHW Center in Salem Township. At Zeeb, we would have to go from the upstairs, down the stairs, out to the back end of the parking lot to help somebody out. And sometimes, it was just a bag of batteries. And so, it was not a very efficient system. And now, we have a building that's specifically dedicated for this, which has a covered drive-up. It's a five-second walk for staff. So, it's just a much better system for us to be able to accept that material. And it's very convenient for residents once they're there.
David Fair: Well, the need for a new facility was clear, but where the money would come from, perhaps not so much. The operators of the Arbor Hills landfill have had a number of environmental and community issues, and it was a legal settlement that allowed for creation of the new drop-off center. If I understand it correctly, the agreements it made with the state of Michigan means it's going to have to accept home toxics for free for the next ten years. Is that right?
Theo Eggermont: That's correct. And it's available not only to Washtenaw County residents, but also to Northville Township and the city of Northville residents as well. We don't take business materials. It is just materials generated from our residents with the exception of pesticides, because we have a grant for that. And so, we are able to take pesticides from businesses or nonprofits or schools or something like that.
David Fair: Will that have an impact on Washtenaw County's ability to perhaps direct some funding to other environmental matters?
Theo Eggermont: Yeah, we're excited to see what kind of offsets we get because we still have the Zeeb facility, and we pay for the disposal of the material there. So, we'll see what kind of funds are opened up because of this new center where the disposal is paid for. And a staff member is well paid for by Arbor Hills landfill. So, I'm excited to see what kind of funding that opens up and what we can do with it.
David Fair: And where's the best place to go to find all the information about accessing all that's available in terms of home toxics?
Theo Eggermont: Yeah. Our website is the best place to go. That'll include how to set up an appointment, what Saturdays we've got coming up, as well as what materials are accepted. So, the best place to go for that is Washtenaw County dot org. You can go to Home Toxic Center dot org. I believe it's actually that. We pay for the URL to go directly there.
David Fair: And we will have all the links on our website at WEMU dot org as well. Theo, I always appreciate your time, and thanks for the information today. I appreciate it.
Theo Eggermont: Yeah, thanks for having me on and helping to spread the word about this new facility that people can access year-round.
David Fair: That is Washtenaw County Public Works manager Theo Eggermont. And, again, if you'd like more information, it's going to be available at our website at WEMU dot org. Issues of the Environment is produced in partnership with the office of the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner, and you hear it every Wednesday. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM, Ypsilanti.
Non-commercial, fact based reporting is made possible by your financial support. Make your donation to WEMU today to keep your community NPR station thriving.