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Household hazardous waste disposal in Benton County, Oregon.

Every year, the United States produces at least 236 million metric tons of hazardous waste. The safe disposal of this waste, necessary to protect human health and the environment, is an enormous technological and economic challenge (1). The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), enacted in 1976, and the Hazardous and Soil Waste Amendments to RCRA, passed in 1984, established a comprehensive regulatory program for the generation, transport, storage and disposal of commercial quantities of hazardous wastes.

Commonly used household items such as household cleaners, automotive products, paint products, wood preservatives and pesticides often meet the RCRA definition of hazardous waste and, therefore, may endanger human health and degrade environmental quality if incorrectly disposed (2). Because 0.3% to 0.5% of municipal solid waste is hazardous waste from households (3), significant quantities of these household hazardous wastes (HHW) can be generated by communities. For example, a city with a population of 40,000, having 14,000 households, could produce approximately 43.7 metric tons of HHW each year.

Household waste is defined by RCRA as "any material (including garbage, trash and sanitary waste in septic tanks) derived from households including single and multiple residences, hotels and motels, bunkhouses, ranger stations, crew quarters, campgrounds, picnic grounds and day-use recreation areas." It is exempt from regulatory control (4); therefore, HHW may enter disposal systems such as landfills and sewage facilities that are not designed to handle hazardous materials. In the early 1980s, environmentally concerned citizens became increasingly aware that current disposal methods for household hazardous waste did not ensure the protection of public health or the environment (5). Programs giving citizens a safe option for disposing of these wastes were designed and implemented across the country. The majority of these activities were community "collection days," which allowed residents to dispose of HHW safely and free of charge by bringing these wastes to a site where the wastes were collected and handled by hazardous waste disposal companies. In some communities, permanent collection sites were opened to provide regular access to a safe disposal system.

The objective of this study was to investigate household hazardous waste disposal in Benton County, Oregon. Specifically, the study was designed to assess current and recent disposal practices, plan for future HHW disposal programs, and help formulate educational and information resource strategies that foster the safe disposal of hazardous household wastes. Data also were obtained regarding respondents' knowledge of the present community recycling program.


The study was conducted among households in Benton County, Oregon (pop. 70,811) (6) from January through April 1991. The county includes the city of Corvallis (pop. 44,749), the smaller cities of Philomath and Monroe, and a substantial rural population.

A random digit dialing system (7, 8) was used to obtain a random sample of Benton County residents aged 18 years or older. (Approximately 95 percent of Benton County households have a telephone |9~). Specifically, review of current telephone directories revealed that 14 telephone prefixes served the geographical boundaries of Benton County. A random four-digit number (10) was joined to each prefix, forming a set of 14 complete telephone numbers. Each number in a set was called in succession; when completed, a new set was drawn and called. To select a respondent, the interviewer asked to speak to the adult in the household with the most recent birthday. The sample size (100 completed interviews) was determined in part by statistical considerations (interviewing enough participants to yield reasonably precise estimates of the responses to the study questions) and in part by logistical considerations, particularly the cost of the study.

The telephone interview consisted of a structured set of questions that was posed to each study participant. The questions probed knowledge about the availability of recycling, disposal practices for household hazardous waste (HHW), preferences for HHW disposal options, concern for HHW as a source of pollution, and sources of information about HHW as well as demographic and household data. Questions probing disposal practices of household battery disposal were added to the questionnaire TABULAR DATA OMITTED after the survey was begun; therefore, only 56 respondents provided information about batteries. The interview instrument was pretested on a nonrandom sample of eight subjects before initiation of the survey.


Study participants -- Complete interviews were obtained from 100 of the 154 valid household numbers dialed (complete interviews, incomplete interviews, refusals, or unanswered numbers), yielding a response rate of 66 percent. This method of calculating the response rate is conservative because it assumes that all unanswered calls were working household numbers (11). The primary reasons for failure to complete an interview were refusals (29 households) and numbers not answered after four attempts (21 households).

Demographic data reported by the study participants and the corresponding 1990 U.S. Census Bureau figures for Benton County are given in Table 1. The demographic data for the study participants were similar to the data for all residents of Benton County with the possible exception that a larger proportion of residents residing within the city limits were studied than are present in the county population. Persons in the 18-24 age group were underrepresented somewhat in the study.

Recycling -- Ninety percent of the subjects living within the city limits of Corvallis and Philomath, where curbside pickup of household recyclables is available, were aware of this service: seven percent said they did not have this service, and three percent said they did not know. When asked whether curbside pickup of used motor oil as available where they lived, 49 percent of Corvallis and Philomath subjects who have this service knew this service was available; 11 percent said they did not have this service, and 40 percent said they did not know.

To determine Benton County residents' knowledge of currently recyclable household products, respondents were asked in an open-ended question to name household items they would like to be able to recycle that currently cannot be recycled. Fifteen percent of respondents named items that currently are recyclable in Benton County, including cardboard, magazines and glass containers mentioned by 11, six and four percent of respondents, respectively.

Disposal practices -- The frequency of households disposing of HHW by type of waste is given in Table 2. Among the HHW evaluated, household batteries were disposed of most frequently (83 percent), followed by used motor oil (33 percent) and paint and paint products (22 percent). The households' disposal methods for automotive and non-automotive HHW are specified in Table 3. Incorrect disposal methods were used by the majority of respondents for almost all HHW products surveyed; for household batteries and wood preservatives, incorrect disposal methods were the only methods reported. On the other hand, a slight majority of participants disposed of used motor oil correctly (55 percent recycled versus 45 incorrectly handled). Among respondents who had curbside pickup of used motor oil available to them, however, only 43 percent disposed of their oil correctly. Only one lead-acid battery was put in a landfill, while six were recycled. Placing HHW in the garbage can was the most frequent form of disposal for each of the non-automotive HHW surveyed.

Preferences for HHW disposal options -- Access to a permanent HHW collection site was the preferred HHW disposal option for 64 percent of the study participants. Home pickup and a collection day system were the next most preferred options (preferred by 25 and 13 percent, respectively). Most of the subjects preferring HHW collection days claimed they would need a collection day once or twice each year (46 and 39 percent, respectively). Only 15 percent claimed to need three collection days each year, while no participant claimed to need more than three collection days. On the other hand, 49 percent of subjects preferring a permanent site claimed they would use it three or more times each year.

Among participants who preferred a permanent collection site, 100 percent were willing to travel up to five miles to use the site, and 44 percent would travel up to 10 miles. Only 10 percent would travel farther than 10 miles to use a permanent collection site. When asked which, if any, of three options for funding a HHW collection system they would be most willing to accept (a charge on each item at the time of disposal, TABULAR DATA OMITTED a small increase in garbage collection fees, and a tax on hazardous household products), 47 percent of the participants indicated a preference for placing a charge on HHW disposal; 31 percent preferred an increase in garbage disposal fees; and 22 percent preferred a tax on hazardous products.

Concern for HHW as a source of pollution -- Seventy-five percent of the participants reported that they were very concerned or somewhat concerned about the possibility of chemical pollution of surface or groundwater by HHW; 18 percent reported that they were not too concerned, and five percent were not at all concerned. (Three percent of respondents did not know or failed to respond to this question.)

When asked how confident they were in a landfill to contain chemical wastes, a majority of the respondents (68 percent) stated that they lacked confidence in the safety of landfills; 25 percent were somewhat confident in the safety of chemicals in the landfill, and five percent of respondents said they were very confident in the landfill for safe disposal of chemical wastes. Two percent of respondents answered that they did not know.

Sources of information about HHW -- Fifty-two percent of participants responded that they had heard or read about HHW disposal during the last year; 47 percent said they had not been exposed to HHW educational materials during this time period, and one percent could not recall. Among subjects who remembered reading or heating about HHW disposal, 90 percent could recall at least one source of this information. Forty-two percent cited the newspaper as the source of HHW disposal education; 21 percent named pamphlets or mailers, and 17 percent of respondents had seen HHW disposal information on television. The radio and the disposal company were each named by 13 percent of respondents, followed by school (six percent), conversation (four percent), and the county extension service or the workplace (two percent).

When asked whom they would call for information concerning HHW disposal, 62 percent of the participants said they would call the disposal company; eight percent would call the county health department, and six percent said they would contact a state or federal government agency such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Natural Resources, or the Department of Environmental Quality. Four percent of respondents reported they would contact various county sources (the county extension service or the county annex) for HHW disposal information; three percent named Oregon State University, and nine percent would contact sources such as their landlord, the Chamber of Commerce and the landfill for HHW disposal information. Eight percent of respondents did not know whom they would contact for information about HHW disposal.


The results of this study indicate that Benton County residents dispose of the majority of their HHW by methods that may not protect human health and the environment. These methods are depositing HHW in the landfill, pouring HHW on the ground or into the sewer/septic system, and burning HHW. Studies done in other states also report high percentages of HHW disposal by these incorrect methods (12, 13, 14).

Several factors may be responsible for the high frequency of incorrect disposal methods observed. Many people may not consider household products to be hazardous. A survey of Albuquerque, New Mexico residents found that 12 percent of the respondents did not identify any disposed household waste as HHW, and 28 percent named only one item (5). Scudder and Blehm (16) found that 20 percent of respondents were unable to name a single toxic household product, and an additional 19 percent could name only one product.

Another reason contributing to the incorrect disposal of HHW could be the perception that risk is limited to poisonings TABULAR DATA OMITTED and injury due to skin contact. The Metro study (13) asked respondents to rate the hazard level of each of ten types of HHW; chemical drain openers and herbicides and pesticides were rated the highest. Motor oil and automobile and furniture polishes were rated the least hazardous. In all cases, households with young children tended to assign higher risk ratings than households without small children. The Albuquerque HHW study (15) had similar findings: household cleaners and pesticides were the products most commonly identified as hazardous.

Inadequate labelling of hazardous household products also may be a factor influencing HHW disposal behavior (3, 5). Many household product labels do not list all the ingredients present in the product or the correct disposal information.

A final reason for incorrect disposal methods for HHW may be the lack of an accessible system, such as a collection day or permanent disposal site. Storage of HHW in the home, especially flammable or toxic materials, is associated with increased risk of property damage and personal injury (17), discouraging long-term storage of some HHW until a correct disposal method is available. Motor oil and lead-acid batteries can be correctly disposed of by recycling in Benton County, and the majority of subjects in this study used this disposal option. This finding suggests that providing a correct disposal option may significantly reduce the incorrect disposal of HHW.


This survey supports the establishment of a permanent collection site as the most viable disposal system for HHW in Benton County. The location of this permanent site could be a critical factor in its use by the public, since 90 percent of the subjects selecting this disposal option stated they would drive no farther than 10 miles to use this facility. A user fee was found to be the most acceptable funding option for such a system.

Of particular interest was the frequency of paint disposal. Twenty-two percent of the households interviewed disposed of paint or paint products during the past year, and the majority of these products were disposed of by landfilling. Benton County, Oregon held HHW collection events in 1990 and 1991. At the 1990 collection day, 516 gallons of latex and 1,107 gallons of oil-based paint were collected; these paint products comprised 55 percent of the total HHW collected at the event. A "paint exchange" effort at the 1990 collection event was able to reclaim 228 gallons of latex paint to be reused as paint instead of being disposed of as HHW (Corvallis Disposal Co., personal communication).

At the 1991 collection event, 6,360 gallons of latex and oil-based paint were hauled away as hazardous waste, while an additional 750 gallons of latex and oil-based paint were recovered as reusable paint product. Paint comprised 65 percent of the HHW collected at the event (18). At both events, two factors limited reuse of paint brought in for disposal: deterioration of paint quality during storage (often while the owner awaited an opportunity for safe disposal of the paint); and the limitations of processing large quantities of paint in a one-day event. These data indicate that a significant portion of HHW can be eliminated from the waste stream by a permanent "paint exchange" system in the community, in which unwanted paint can be collected, sorted and reused for its original purpose.

Approximately one-half of those surveyed stated they had heard or read about HHW disposal in the past year. Community waste disposal companies were named by 62 percent of respondents as their primary source for HHW disposal information. These companies should be able to provide all necessary information on HHW disposal and, ideally, serve as a major HHW educational resource for the community.

While the generalization of the study results to other areas should be assessed, the study findings suggest that establishment of a permanent collection site is the most viable disposal option for HHW in Benton County and in other locations outside metropolitan areas. Further, the study suggests that the site should be located within 10 miles of the potential users and funded, at least in part, by a user fee. Establishment of permanent collection sites should be a priority for persons charged with protecting the public and the environment from unnecessary chemical risk.


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2. Bass, E., R. Calderon and M. Khan (1990), Household hazardous waste: A review of public attitudes and disposal problems, J. Environ. Health 52:358-361.

3. ... (1990), Proceedings of the Fourth National Conference on Household Hazardous Waste Management, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Pub. No. NTIS No. PB90-163189, Washington, DC.

4. ... (1990), Code of Federal Regulations, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC.

5. ... (1986), Summary of the First National Conference on Household Hazardous Waste Collection Programs, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Pub. No. NTIS No. PB89-179519, Arlington, VA.

6. ... (1991), 1990 census of population and housing for Oregon (Summary Tape File 1A), U.S. Dept. of Commerce Bureau of the Census, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC.

7. Dillman, D. (1978), Mail and telephone surveys, John Wiley and Sons, New York, NY.

8. Frey, J. (1989), Survey Research by Telephone, Sage Publications, Newbury Park, state.

9. ... (1980), Housing characteristics for states, cities and counties, Vol. 1, Part 39, U.S. Dept. of Commerce Bureau of the Census, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC.

10. Groves, R., P. Biemer, ... Lyberg, other names (eds.) (1988), Telephone survey methodology, John Wiley and Sons, New York, NY.

11. Owen, D.B. (1962), Handbook of statistical tables, Addison-Wesley Co., Reading, MA.

12. Stanek, E., R. Tuthill, C. Willis and G. Moore (1987), Household hazardous waste in Massachusetts, Arch. Environ. Health 42:83-86.

13. ... (198_), Summary Report: Household hazardous waste disposal project, Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle, Pub. No. NTIS No. PB84-103746, Seattle, WA.

14. ... (1988), Summary of the Third National Conference on Household Hazardous Waste Management, Pub. No. NTIS No. PB89-179527, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Office of Solid Waste, Washington, DC.

15. Salas, A. (1983), Residental hazardous/toxic waste survey, New Mexico Dept. of Health and Energy, Albuquerque, NM.

16. Scudder, K. and K. Blehm (1991), Household hazardous waste: Assessing public sattitudes and awareness, J. Environ. Health 53(6):18-20.

17. Sarnat, C. (1990), County develops a permanent household hazardous waste collection program, Public Works, volume, number:58-60.

18. ... (June 30, 1991), Lessons found in waste day, Corvallis Gazette-Times, Corvallis, OR.

John McEvoy, M.S., R.S., Linn County Environmental Health, P.O. Box 100, Albany, OR 97321.
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Author:Rossignol, Annette Mackay
Publication:Journal of Environmental Health
Date:Oct 1, 1993
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