We have been writing about the importance of not mixing household wastes because the tasks of collection, transport, recycling, processing and safe disposal are much easier if the dry and wet wastes are kept separate in the first instance. We focus here on a completely different kind of household waste — hazardous waste.
With changing lifestyles, our homes are awash with different chemicals and products which, often without us being aware, are corrosive, explosive, flammable or toxic. These are dangerous wastes that need to be kept out of the wet and dry waste streams. They are harmful not only for our health but also for the environment if not disposed of properly.
Domestic hazardous waste is defined under Solid Waste Management Rules 2016 to include items such as discarded cans of paint and pesticide, sanitary waste such as disposable diapers and sanitary pads, items of biomedical waste such as expired or discarded medicines, broken mercury thermometers, used needles and syringes, e-waste such as tube lights and CFL bulbs, and also items such as used batteries and button cells, all generated at the household level. Leftover paints and varnishes are examples of common polluting wastes in homes. They often contain toxic heavy metals and flammable solvents. Lead, a highly toxic metal, is found in lead-based paints which are often used on walls, toys and art supplies. Young children are particularly vulnerable as even low levels of lead exposure can cause cognitive disabilities in children.
WHO lists lead exposure as one of the top 10 environmental health threats globally. Many countries have phased out lead from their paints. In November 2016, India brought in a regulation which allowed a maximum of 90 ppm lead content in paints. However, a study by Toxic Links published in October 2018 shows that concentration of lead in paints manufactured by small and medium enterprises in India remains very high. They found paint samples with as high as 199,345 ppm lead content — more than 2,000 times the maximum limit. What is even more disturbing is that only 16 per cent of the 160 consumers surveyed were aware of the issue of lead in paints.
Other examples of hazardous domestic waste are pesticides for mosquitoes, flies, cockroaches and rats. These are as poisonous for humans as they are deadly for their targets. Fungicides and garden herbicides are also very toxic, not only when used but especially when disposed of. Many are also carcinogenic. About 2-3 per cent of these liquids typically remain in supposedly empty containers. Motor oils, greases and lubricants are all flammable but can be recovered as fuels when pooled. Broken glass is the most commonly dangerous domestic hazardous waste. If only we take on the responsibility of collecting our broken glass in an old flowerpot and bury it underground. Likewise, the principal responsibility for the safe disposal of sanitary waste, suitably wrapped, rests with us as consumers and waste generators even as the manufacturers of sanitary pads and diapers must provide pouches.
There are rules galore for domestic hazardous waste with quite a bit of overlap in coverage for different types of waste. Domestic hazardous waste comes under the ambit of Solid Waste Management (SWM) Rules 2016. Hazardous waste generated by industries and large offices is separately covered under the Hazardous Waste Rules 2016. Some biomedical waste is included in the definition of domestic hazardous waste, but only waste from healthcare establishments is covered under the Bio-Medical Waste Management Rules 2016. Similarly E-waste Management Rules 2016 are applicable to e-waste including computers, printers, TV, fluorescent and other mercury containing lamps, while lead acid batteries from home inverters and cars come under Batteries (Management and Handling) Rules 2001.
With multiple sets of rules and weak capacity for enforcement, it is not surprising that the situation on the ground remains very bleak, particularly since the awareness of the hazard among those who generate the waste and those who handle it is almost non-existent. It is the responsibility of the municipal authorities under the SWM Rules 2016, to collect hazardous waste quarterly or periodically, and/or set up deposit centres, where such waste can be dropped off by waste generators. The authorities must also ensure safe storage of the waste and its transportation to the hazardous waste disposal facility. But the rules lose their significance because there are hardly any deposit centres for domestic hazardous waste.
Deposit centres are the bedrock for effective disposal of household hazardous waste. We have personal experience of collecting piles of used batteries from children’s toys, clocks and watches and hearing aids, and keeping them separate from the other waste. But we do not really know how to set them on a supply chain where they are disposed of safely.
The Biomedical Waste Management Rules 2016 require safe disposal of only healthcare waste. While only 10-25 per cent of biomedical waste is infectious or hazardous, if not properly handled, it presents physical, chemical and microbiological risk to the general population as well as those who handle this waste. Discarded hazardous medical waste leads to unintended release of drug resistant microorganisms in the environment. According to the WHO, in 2016, 490,000 persons developed multi-drug resistant TB globally and drug resistance is starting to complicate the fight against HIV and malaria, as well. A WHO report also shows that there were 65,000 cases of multi drug-resistant and Rifampicin-resistant tuberculosis in India in 2017. What is worse, such resistance has increased in the past few years.
The long and short of it is that modern lifestyle comes with new responsibilities. Let us begin by keeping three bins for our waste: Dry, wet and hazardous.