What the Heck Is Universal Waste (and What Do You Do With It?)

In Articles, Home by David Troust2 Comments

I’m sure you are thinking, “Recycling? I’ve got that area of sustainability locked down tight! I recycle everything my municipality collects — all my paper, cardboard, cans, and glass and plastics. Is there more? Are you going to tell me I’m doing it wrong again?”

No, you aren’t doing it wrong, but believe it or not, some smart people are working hard to divert even more from our precious limited landfills. I’m talking about what the industry calls Universal Waste or u-waste. Beyond what we commonly think of as recyclable such as Mixed Paper (MP), Cardboard (OCC) and Glass-Metal-Plastic (GMP), more and more people are getting on board with u-waste recycling.

What Is U-Waste?

Universal waste is a subset of hazardous waste that includes batteries, pesticides, mercury-containing equipment and bulbs. Proper storage and disposal of these materials are regulated by the EPA.

My experience working with Great Forest managing commercial waste/recycling programs shows me that the business world has a partial grasp on u-waste, but mostly with regards to bulbs and lamps. I’m guessing the reason for the increase in bulb and lamp recycling is due to the high visibility of CFLs, and the resulting energy savings that can be achieved.

Just recently have we seen a rise in battery diversion programs as property owners and managers get on board with this category of u-waste. We highly encourage clients and colleagues to expand their battery recycling program to include miscellaneous electronics such as wires, chargers, phones, TVs, computers, printers, scrap metal, etc.  The cost of storing and recycling these items are fairly inexpensive, as the precious metals found in electronics are valuable commodities. So how does this translate to u-waste recycling at home?

Storing U-Waste at Home

First you need to develop a system of storing these items inside your home to ensure they are not disposed of in the trash and landfilled or taken to a Waste-to-Energy (WTE) facility which is sometimes controversial. For example, across the river from me, the majority of trash from Arlington and Alexandria, Virginia is disposed of at the Covanta WTE facility where it is safely incinerated. This process boils water, which creates steam, which then drives the turbine to generate electricity for tens of thousands of Virginia residents. Opponents object to the pollution, though it’s much cleaner than EPA standards.

Batteries and Electronics

Designating a small box or other container for batteries and electronics is a safe, easy way to store these materials for later disposal. Having a specific location to store this container is also important. Choose an out-of-the-way spot in your basement or garage, or, if that is not an option, try a spot in a closet that children and pets can’t access.

Bulbs and Lamps

Bulbs and lamps should be placed whole in a box (do not crush or break), and then the box should be placed in a locked or hard to access secure area away from children and pets.

Disposing of U-Waste

Visit your municipality’s website to determine when and where these materials can be dropped off. If they don’t accept u-waste, certain retailers in your area may also provide drop-off services for some u-waste materials at no cost. Best Buy and Home Depot are good places to start, or try Earth911’s Recycling Search. Just plug in your zip code and what you are recycling and it will list facilities near you that will accept the waste.

2009 Electronics Recycling Statistics for the United States

  1. Residential households store 5 times more computer products (by weight) than commercial establishments.
  2. CRT’s (TV’s and monitors) comprise nearly half (47%) of all electronics ready for disposal
  3. 25% of electronics were collected for recycling, with computers collected at the highest rate (38%)
  4. Recycling rate (% by weight recycled of total weight generated)
  • Computers = 38%
  • Televisions = 17%
  • Mobile Devices = 8%

Donating or allowing someone else to reuse your old electronics should always be your primary focus.  It’s the old “trash or treasure” concept: One person’s trash is another’s treasure!

David Troust

David is in his second career with Great Forest Inc., managing commercial recycling programs for over 250 properties nationwide.A recovering chef and restaurant manager, David has cut off the long hair and is thrilled to be hugging trees professionally now, and helping businesses maximize their diversion efforts.David lives in Silver Spring, MD with his beautiful wife Kathleen, their two young boys Ian and Kyle, and boxer female Hannah.

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  1. David, great to meet you at the GGF at Scion last week Did you follow EarthCell – a battery start up with a system for mailing back dead batteries and getting new ones. This was such a promising solution, but unfort, it apparently wasn’t a viable system so they can’t take back the batteries any more.

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