HHW Collection: Rising To The Challenge

An often-ignored part of the waste management system is household hazardous wastes (HHW) collection. One city in Ontario, however, has discovered that patience and persistence can pay off.

Due to its efforts over the past seven years, the City of St. Catharines, with a population of 129,300 and 50,051 households, has an established HHW collection program with an enviable track record. An annual program has been in place since 1990; before then, the city had held only one HHW day, two years earlier.

So far, public response has been positive and the city has received many requests for more opportunities to dispose of HHW. However, finding the right mix that will maximize participation and capture rates while minimizing costs is the city's main challenge.

The city contracts HHW services to a private company, which assumes liability. The contractor provides a licensed drop-off center, waste handling, packaging, transport and disposal. The city's role involves advertising and contract administration.

Keeping Track Efficient record-keeping and sorting are key for a successful HHW collection system. For example, before attendants accept the waste at the St. Catharines site, residents must complete a form which includes their name and address, the number of households generating the waste and where they heard about the event. As this information is compiled, officials can track the program's progress.

The hazwastes are sorted and placed in lab packs or in 205-liter drums. Materials such as acids and pesticides are usually packed in their original containers, while motor oil is emptied directly into the lab packs. Alkyd and latex paints are boxed; vehicle batteries and barbecue propane tanks are placed on pallets.

The lab packs and boxes are sealed, listed in a record and then trucked to the disposal site or to an end-user for recycling. For example, paint, oil, batteries and propane tanks would be recycled.

Since the program's inception, it has been adapted to fit budgets and residents' needs. In 1990, four HHW days were held: two in spring, one in summer and one in the fall. In 1991, the city held only two events, due to high costs. During that time, approximately 73 lab packs of oil were collected. This high response prompted the city to establish a separate oil collection depot and to increase oil collection frequency.

Response was excellent. A total of 161 lab packs were collected in 1992 and 166 lab packs were filled in 1993.

As the program has evolved, its costs have changed as well. To date, the city has calculated its expenditures to be the following (in Canadian dollars):

* $68,000 in 1988 for one HHW day;

* $192,700 in 1990 for four HHW days;

* $194,200 in 1991 for two HHW days;

* $97,900 in 1992 for two HHW days and seven oil days;

* $80,300 in 1993 for two HHW days and 12 oil days; and

* $76,300 in 1994 for eight HHW days and five oil days.

Even with separate oil collection depots, the city still needed to reduce traffic congestion and the 30- to 40-minute waiting time. In addition, officials became concerned with the lag time between collection events, which increased the amount of time these materials were being stored in residents' homes. Combined, these factors led the city to initiate a monthly HHW depot program in May 1994. At this point, the separate oil collection days became redundant.

Boosting Participation St. Catharines residents have always supported their HHW program. The single event in 1988 attracted approximately 600 vehicles, which increased to 2,200 when the regular program was introduced in 1990. Repeat vehicles were counted twice. The site's convenient location, a 10- to 15-minute drive for most residents, has undoubtedly played a role in the program's success.

The site's waiting time, however, took a toll on participation. By 1993, vehicle visits had declined to 1,450. When monthly events were introduced in 1994, however, waiting times dropped dramatically and participation nearly doubled.

When calculating participation for 1993 and 1994, officials measured the number of vehicles and households that used the program, counting vehicles once. By 1994, household participation had increased to 2,783 from 1,528 in 1993.

Because some residents dropped off waste from more than one home, the household rate is the most realistic participation measure. Typically, these vehicles brought waste from two or three other households. Occasionally, waste was brought from four or more households, such as small apartment buildings. A handful of users from outside the city also used the facility at least one day in 1994.

As the frequency of HHW days increased, officials discovered that a small but growing percentage of households used two days. Very few used more than two days.

Currently, officials are tracking participation rates for the monthly program (see figure on page 35). Generally, the depot is used more frequently during spring and fall. When the monthly HHW days were launched in May 1994, the first event garnered the highest participation level ever (825 households). One year later, participation had stabilized.

As residents became aware of the monthly service between June and September 1994, participation increased steadily. Interestingly, the only unadvertised HHW day resulted in the second lowest participation (October 1994, 198 households).

The 1995 figures are probably more representative of long-term participation. Between January and September 1995, approximately 2,400 households used at least one HHW day. This is consistent with 1994 results.

Tracking Capture Rates The materials collected include:

* inorganic acids, bases and oxidizing agents;

* pharmaceuticals;

* organic liquids (aerosol, stains and other coatings);

* paints (latex and alkyd);

* motor oil;

* pesticides;

* propane (small cylinders);

* loose propane tanks; and

* automotive batteries.

Three categories consistently form at least 90 percent of the depot's waste: organic liquids, paint and motor oil. However, the numbers in these categories have shifted considerably.

In 1990, organic liquids represented approximately 75 percent of the waste collected, but by 1994 this figure had decreased to 31 percent. On the other hand, paints significantly increased from 5 percent (by volume) of all waste collected in 1990 to almost half in 1994. This increase can be partially attributed to greater public awareness of paint recycling.

Similarly, quantities of motor oil steadily increased after the monthly oil depot was introduced in 1992. Motor oil represented 12 percent of the waste in 1991, 27 percent in 1992 and 35 percent in 1993. Although waste oil volumes for 1994 were consistent with the higher volumes collected in 1992-93, they represented only 14 percent of the total HHW collected.

The final components in the HHW stream represent between 1 and 7 percent of the waste collected: acids, bases and oxidizing agents; pesticides; lab packed propane cylinders; and pharmaceuticals.

Although the total volume of HHW collected declined between 1990-93, it doubled in 1994 with the introduction of the monthly depot. That year saw increases in almost every waste category collected. This was a direct result of improved convenience and greater participation.

Recycle To Minimize Costs Most materials are recycled to some degree, except acids, bases, oxidizing agents, pesticides and pharmaceuticals. The contractor recycles approximately 90 percent of the paint. At least 60 percent of the organic liquids, mainly the petroleum distillates, is used for alternative fuel blending. Tanks in good condition are retrofitted, refilled and reused. Unfit tanks are sent to a metal scrap dealer for recycling after the valve is removed.

Total cost depends on the number of lab packs collected since payment is based on a unit price per pack. The amount varies with the type of material. Consequently, the total cost decreased between 1991-92 because the contractor charged lower unit prices and because the quantity of waste collected had decreased. This was particularly evident in 1993 when the total cost dropped from 1992 - even though unit prices were consistent.

After the monthly program was introduced, the total cost declined approximately $4,000 (Canadian). However, because participation and quantities collected increased dramatically, the average cost per lab pack dropped by 56 percent. The average cost per day also decreased compared to 1993, despite the six additional HHW days in 1994.

Advertising Strategy St. Catharines promotes its HHW events through newspaper advertisements and a city newsletter. Many participants mention the newspaper ads when asked how they first became aware of the program. The ads also are useful reminders of the program dates.

Although radio announcements were used in the past, they became too expensive and were discontinued. Instead, the city relies on word of mouth among neighbors and local groups, especially environmentalists. Hanging posters at strategic locations such as local hardware and paint stores is another effective method. In the future, the city plans to promote the program in area schools as part of a general public awareness campaign.

The reduction in industry prices over the years has allowed the city to expand its program without incurring additional costs. The new monthly service has improved convenience, boosted household participation to 5.6 percent and increased quantities collected by more than 110 percent. The 1994 program has not only doubled the amount of HHW diverted from the landfill, but also reduced the potential danger of storing these materials at home for extended periods.

Because the monthly program is still in its infancy, it's difficult to predict whether it can sustain its success. More than 47,000 households don't use the program and presumably continue to dispose of their hazardous waste with the household garbage or store the materials. Still, with more aggressive advertising the city has high hopes for the program's future.