Expensive But Smart

September 1, 2000

10 Min Read
Expensive But Smart

David Nightingale

They may be expensive, but there are significant benefits to starting a household hazardous waste (HHW) program.

Permanent HHW collection facilities have increased dramatically in recent years - from 39 in 1989 to 529 in 1998. Although one-third of HHW facilities at least six years old were built to meet regulatory requirements or court orders, most were established voluntarily.


While they are expensive to build and operate, HHW facilities have proven to be a sound business decision for many communities because they:

- Help prevent employee chemical-exposure injuries;

- Protect water supplies and water pollution discharge limits;

- Minimize accidents which lower insurance rates;

- Prevent damage to waste handling equipment, especially at waste-to-energy (WTE) plants;

- Reduce the potential future for Superfund or state cleanup liability; and

- Lessen, in part, public resistance to other waste facilities.

Pioneering HHW facilities developed in the 1980s and early 1990s, mostly in environmentally progressive metropolitan areas. However, several solid waste programs now are realizing that a HHW collection program can reduce risks and lower insurance and capital costs.

Leading states now collect 1 pound to 3.5 pounds of HHW per capita annually. However, around 20 pounds of HHW is generated each year, per person. And, 3.5 pounds collected only represents 17.5 percent of the total produced.

Avoiding Employee Injuries Solid waste workers have a history of injuries from exposure to chemicals in waste. The source of these chemicals often can be traced to households - pool chlorine, strong acids and bases, automotive products, and cleaning and hobby chemicals kept in containers can be crushed easily in a packer truck. Once the contents break out or chemically react, they can injure workers, create dangerous gases or damage machinery.

Although the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), Washington, D.C., doesn't collect statistics for employee injuries from HHW exposure, there is anecdotal or documented evidence.

For example, in November 1996, a New York City solid waste collection worker was killed by exposure to hydrofluoric acid - often used by home hobbyists to etch glass - sprayed from the truck's compactor. Portland, Ore.'s central transfer station reported three chlorine gas incidents in two months. In all three cases, pool chlorine mixed with substances in the municipal solid waste (MSW), and workers required medical attention. While HHW facility employees located onsite responded, the transfer station still was forced to close temporarily in each case.

Water Supply Protection Despite being prohibited from sewer disposal, HHW is found in wastewater treatment systems, which have become common disposal sites for household chemicals. Consequently, wastewater workers performing routine monitoring or maintenance on sewer pipes can be exposed to hazardous liquids and gases from HHW and its byproducts.

These exposures can injure employees and cause medical expenses and paid sick leave - significant and avoidable costs. Additionally, industrial insurance premiums can increase with relatively high employee claims.

HHW facilities can help prevent costly injuries because they are equipped with systems to protect workers and the structure from unwanted chemical exposure or reactions. In fact, few HHW facility workers are exposed to chemicals because they are trained to handle segregated wastes. [See "HHW Injury Risks," page 88.]

A number of water-quality-related national programs are related to HHW collection programs. For example:

- Non-point source surface water pollution, which includes some HHWs, is recognized as the primary fresh water pollution source by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Washington, D.C.

- Wellhead Protection Areas protect local water supply aquifers, and their plans address household sources of pollutants including HHW.

- Surface Water Discharge Permits sometimes are written to require having a HHW collection program.

- Wastewater discharge (NPDES) permits are becoming increasingly stringent. Today's wastewater operators are focusing on reducing pollutants from household sources, and this means more HHW programs.

All these programs tie into the Clean Water Act or the Safe Drinking Water Act, either of which may support a household hazardous waste program.

This relationship can increase the positive community profile of the HHW program and, in some cases, help defray costs.

Permanent Protection HHW in combustors can cause WTE plants to exceed their stack emission thresholds or even cause explosions. Consequently, WTE plants in several states have instituted HHW programs.

Collecting HHW separately also can reduce hazardous chemicals entering the solid waste stream and may reduce landfill leachate's toxicity.

According to the Waste Watch Center, Andover, Mass., in 1998, the more than 3,000 collection programs included:

- 529 permanent HHW programs, fixed facilities and mobile;

- 450 permanent fixed facilities;

- 118 mobile programs with a fixed facility base; and

- 79 mobile programs without a fixed facility base.

Permanent fixed HHW facilities have evolved from one-day or weekend HHW collection events to permanent collection sites. On the other hand, mobile programs with a fixed facility base are used increasingly to serve outlying areas.

Economic Drivers Economics has driven the creation of many permanent collection facilities, since some programs find these facilities cheaper per unit to operate. Often, the cost per participant at a collection event ranges from $70 to $90 compared to $45 to $65 with a permanent fixed facility.

Firms that bid for HHW collection services often feed HHW wastes to their own hazardous waste handling disposal facilities. Most HHW facilities are publicly operated and are typically interested in lowering program costs.

By reusing and recycling their HHW in-house and offering recoverable products to the public, permanent facilities can save communities thousands of dollars per year.

Some hazardous waste firms have aggressively pursued recycling and reuse options. But because of the large investment in disposal technology and in-place capacity by many of these firms, recycling and reuse can become an organizational, if not financial, struggle.

However, the savings that can result from a permanent HHW collection facility vs. a collection event depend on a facility's ability to more-efficiently handle or market HHW. Common cost-saving activities include bulking flammable liquids, consolidating the contents of aerosol cans with flammable liquids and recycling latex paints. Additional operational savings can be realized by efficiently storing and consolidating HHW in truckload quantities.

How to Determine Size One key budgeting problem is determining how large a HHW collection program will grow. In a survey of 24 North American HHW collection facilities that were operating six years or more, 19 respondents reported rising and falling participation rates from year-to-year. On average, however, the rate of increase levels by year seven.

Between the first and second year, there is great variability - some facilities experience up to triple the number of participants, but generally, participation doubles. On average, years three through five show a 40 percent to 50 percent increase in participation each year. By year six, the average increase drops to between 20 percent and 30 percent. And by the seventh and eighth year, the average participation increase falls below 10 percent.

Thus, cities implementing a permanent HHW facility should plan for dramatic increases in the number of customers in the first couple of years and design their sites to handle the traffic and future expansion.

Comparing and Calculating Quantities Historically, HHW managers have compared the total weight of waste collected at their facility per year, per customer or per vehicle with the totals from other facilities. However, the type of waste collected varies among facilities. For instance, a facility that doesn't accept or count certain items, such as used oil, automotive batteries and latex paint, will have lower weights than a facility that accounts for large, heavy waste streams.

The types of wastes collected also can vary dramatically from year to year, as waste management methods or contractors change. Additionally, exchange and reuse programs divert waste from typical disposal options.

However, calculated waste totals can be useful for planners because they show an average weight per participant. By averaging the first six years, weight per participant ranges from 60 pounds to 74 pounds.

Capital Cost Comparisons Based on the HHW facility survey, capital costs for a HHW facility range from $17,454 to remodel a building to $1.3 million to design and construct a metropolitan facility. Areas with more than one facility typically construct less-expensive satellite locations served by a central consolidation or shipping facility. The average total capital cost per facility was $453,000 for pioneering facilities built in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Now, at least 10 HHW collection facilities whose costs have exceeded $1 million have been built (but only a few costing more than $2 million have been built). Today, most HHW facility development budgets start at $500,000 or more, excluding land purchase. As the project proceeds and the building codes are applied, the required design and construction costs often increase.

An experienced design team working with local building officials can help coordinate the budget and facility needs while providing realistic construction estimates. Significant-cost items often required but not anticipated by less-experienced teams, include:

- Adequate volume and type of exhaust ventilation (more than the code minimums);

- Chemically resistant floor sealing;

- Emergency backup generator; and

- Automatic fire-suppression systems.

A facility's design should pay serious attention to capital investment (planning, design, built-in operating efficiencies, equipment selection, and construction or remodeling) to reduce the long-term facility operation costs.

Operating costs during the past three years were five times capital costs, based on the 14 facilities reporting operating costs for the past three years, as well as historical capital or construction and equipment costs. Expenditures reported over the three years ranged from about equal to capital investment to as high as 19 times capital cost. For a facility life of 15 to 30 or more years, capital investment quickly is overshadowed by operating costs.

The facility design can greatly enhance or retard efficient and safe waste handling, and may increase or decrease operating costs.

Facility Development Checklist Before you build a permanent HHW collection facility:

- Visit other facilities; see what works and what doesn't.

- Talk with fire and building officials about your project early and often.

- Contact others in your area who may support the project (fire stations, wastewater plants, etc.).

- Select a centrally located site.

- Create a project team with HHW design and operations experience.

- Design a facility large enough for the future, or plan for easy expansion when needed. Of the facility operators interviewed, only one had built a facility large enough after the first 12 months of operation.

While HHW collection programs typically have broad public appeal, often their support isn't from a solid waste organization. For instance, many programs are sponsored by local fire departments, health districts, wastewater treatment programs and businesses. States also offer matching funds or grants to qualified applicants to start or share HHW collection program operating and capital costs. In the end, even though these facilities can be expensive to own and operate, they provide a tangible way to help reduce the toxicity of a community's solid waste stream.

National and state studies have verified that injuries to workers at HHW facilities typically are related to physical, not chemical, workplace hazards. A survey of HHW facilities, operating at least six years as of 1997, included:

Have you had any unanticipated chemical reactions or spills? No 7 Yes 2 Instances reported: - Small reaction in test pail - Residue in oxidizer container reacted with something in roll-off

Have you had any worker injuries? No 6 Yes 3 Instances reported: - Back injuries - Minor cut to hand Ninty percent came from handling containers or falling containers.

All the worker injuries reported in this survey resulted from physical hazards in the workplace, not chemical hazards. None of the HHW facilites that reported chemical reactions or spills resulted in worker injury.

Stay in the Know - Subscribe to Our Newsletters
Join a network of more than 90,000 waste and recycling industry professionals. Get the latest news and insights straight to your inbox. Free.

You May Also Like