Dear Umbra,

Now that I’ve caught the environmental bug, I don’t know what to do with the toxic cleaning products (e.g., Ajax) that I have on hand. As a bulk buyer, I’ve got 5 to 6 bottles in my garage. Is it better to use them up, throw them away, or just have them stay put in my garage?

Jill Miller
Pleasanton, Calif.

Dearest Jill,

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Do not leave them in your garage! Home storage of unused toxics inevitably leads to irksome problems. I speak for all those who have had to clean up someone else’s leftover household cleaners, gardening chemicals, paint stripper, what have you. The smallest problem might be that you decide to move, and in the hurry and bustle of preparing you (naturally) can’t be bothered to specially dispose of a few containers of Ajax or 2,4-D so they go in the trash can. A worse problem would be that you grow old and so do the containers, they sag, leak, lose their labels, and the responsibility for cleaning them up passes to a new person who must wrassle them to the proper trash zone without harming themselves. Deal now, not later.

Handle with care.

Photo: iStockphoto

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I don’t vote for using them up, either. Replacing harmful cleaning supplies is truly a way to healthify your home. I boldly coin a word: It’s like funkify your life, only more practical. Healthify and eco-fy your home. Should I back up a step and review the problems with household cleansers?

Many of them contain ingredients that are harmful in our immediate personal environment, including hazardous to small children and animals, irritating to eyes and skin, or an inhalation danger. These include everyday products like Drano, bleaches … honestly, I don’t use the stuff, so I’m hard-pressed to come up with brand names, but the problems are right there on the package. Read the labels and believe the Danger, Caution, and Warning fine print.

Hopefully everyone knows not to combine products containing bleach and ammonia, as together they create a horrible choking gas, chloramine. Even household cleaning products that are relatively fine for humans can include ingredients harmful to the environment, such as phosphates in detergents or things made from petroleum. Also, when we replace these items with something less toxic, we must remember that less toxic does not mean “edible” or “leave within reach of children.” If you would like to know more, I as always suggest my local Washington Toxics Coalition’s accessible, research-based publications.

When ridding ourselves of household cleaners, if only a small amount remains, we can sometimes flush it down the drain along with plenty of water, because wastewater treatment plants are ready for it. Check with your town or city to find out what sort of restrictions they have. If we have bought in bulk and have six remaining containers, which does not qualify as a small amount, we should consult our local waste-management company. Use the phone book, the company’s website, or if we know not where to begin but we know our zip code, Earth911.

The likely outcome is a trip to the household hazardous-waste site, which will probably accept cleaning products. In some places the hazardous site is mobile, in others it’s a fixed location at a transfer center. Don’t get stuck worrying that driving to the hazardous-waste site — and thereby spewing emissions — is worse than dumping hazardous waste in household garbage. However, to lessen your impact, I would suggest pooling together with your neighbors to take a large amount of rejected cleaners, a good opportunity to spread the Healthify Your Home message. Check with the collection site first to see if you can bring another person’s waste or if there are limits on how much you can bring. Another option, I suppose, is to see whether any neighbors or nonprofit groups have a use for your leftovers, although that doesn’t help our bigger goal of getting rid of toxics.

Since it sounds like you’re freshly round the eco-cleaning bend, remember that a good all-purpose cleaner works wonders, and you can make your own alternatives too. And of course, good for you for making this positive change and eco-fying your home.


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