Americans are recycling more than ever before. According to the EPA, the United States recycles nearly a third of the waste it produces, a 100 percent increase since 1990.
But while recycling programs around the country have become more accessible and it's easier to process paper, plastic, and glass, hazardous materials have remained difficult to dispose of properly. And household hazardous waste (HHW) is a serious problem: The average American home contains 100 pounds of leftover paint, motor oil, pesticides, fluorescent lightbulbs, aerosol cans, computers, TVs, batteries, smoke detectors, and other dangerous items no one wants piling up in the garage. Of course, no one wants them to get into the environment, either.
There's a long list of hazardous waste that should never be thrown in the garbage (to familiarize yourself with it, visit epa.gov/msw/hhw-list.htm). Many communities offer safe hazardous-waste-disposal sites and events. Check with your local landfill or health department to find out the rules in your area, and follow them. Never dump toxins into sewers, as they will eventually flow into rivers and the sea. Likewise, don't dump paint or oil into backyard pits, which used to be a common disposal method. Be especially vigilant about recycling ionization smoke detectors, which contain small amounts of radioactive material, and ask if your local sanitation department will drain the Freon out of old air conditioners and refrigerators before disposing of them.
Electronics are one of the most hazardous types of household waste, and most people don't know how to dispose of them properly. Sadly, even if you take your old computer or television to an electronics "recycling" station, the item is likely to be shipped to a foreign country, where it will be dismantled for its most valuable materials, such as precious metals, while the rest ends up in a landfill and poisons local water supplies with mercury, lead, and a number of other toxins. The Basel Action Network, which monitors toxic waste, maintains a list of recyclers around the country, called "e-Stewards," who have committed to recycling electronics in an environmentally friendly manner. Most reputable companies will charge you to recycle small electronics, since it is actually quite expensive to do so responsibly.
The most careful action you can take is also probably the easiest: Try to avoid toxic products whenever possible. Opt for less-toxic versions of insecticides, cleaners, and other products. Replace electronics only when you must, and always find a reputable electronics recycler for your old gear when you do need to buy a new computer, cell phone, or MP3 player. File recycling information about each new purchase, such as ink cartridges, alongside the warranty, or tape the information to the product, if practical.
Check with your landfill or health department to learn about the rules in your area.