Disposal of household special wastes

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John Marshall

Modern waste disposal facilities reduce the impact of household wastes on the environment. For example, decomposing organic matter produces methane and leachate in landfills, but methane flaring and leachate capture and treatment lessen these impacts. However, many smaller and older landfills operate without the benefit of high-tech pollution control systems. Some common household materials can pose a threat to groundwater quality, especially in these older landfills. These "special waste" materials require more attention and care to ensure safe disposal or recycling, where possible.

Many programs across Canada provide safe disposal alternatives for household special wastes. However, results from the 2006 Households and the Environment Survey indicate that many households are not fully aware of these options. The programs may not be fully used and many special waste materials can end up on the curb.

How do households deal with their special wastes?
Leftover or expired medications
Dead batteries
Computers and communication devices
Paint—a clear picture

How do households deal with their special wastes?

Households across the country regularly produce special wastes ranging from dead batteries to old paint containers. This study focuses on four special wastes for which information was collected in the 2006 Households and the Environment Survey—leftover or expired medication, dead batteries, old computer and communications equipment and leftover paint. If these materials were present in the home in 2005, respondents were asked about what they had done with the waste.1

Leftover or expired medications

Sales of prescription and non-prescription drugs (including over-the-counter medication, vitamins and supplements) increased from $11.8 billion in 1998 to $21.8 billion dollars in 2006.2 The aging population, pharmacological and medical advances, as well as price increases have all been cited as contributing factors for this boom in the value of drug sales.3

People do not always finish the full prescribed course of medications, which results in leftover products. Over-the-counter medicines are often kept in the medicine cabinet until expiry dates have passed. Throwing these leftover pharmaceuticals in the trash or flushing them down the drain—uncontrolled methods of disposal—can pose a risk to the environment.

The presence of small amounts of these substances in water is emerging as an important national and international issue. Although the concentrations are low, adverse effects on humans and animals may be possible. Recent research has indicated these products can cause hormonal disruption in many aquatic species. Concerns also exist about the human health effects of medication in drinking water sources.4

Several provincial and industry-led programs encourage the safe disposal of unwanted pharmaceuticals, including for example, the ENVIRx Pharmaceutical Stewardship Program in Alberta.5 In addition to these stewardship initiatives, most special waste depots accept leftover pharmaceuticals and ensure that they are disposed of safely.

Households in Quebec and Prince Edward Island are most careful with disposal of old medications

Nearly a quarter of all households in Canada had leftover or expired drugs in 2005. Almost half of these households returned the products to a pharmacy, depot or drop-off centre, which provided more controlled methods of disposal.

Another 39% of households placed this waste with their regular garbage, flushed it down the drain or buried it. The remaining households still had it at home at the time of the survey and may not have known what to do with it.

Households in different parts of the country dealt with unwanted pharmaceuticals in a wide range of ways (Chart 1).

Chart 1 Treatment of leftover or expired medication, 2005. Opens a new browser window.

Chart 1
Treatment of leftover or expired medication, 2005

Households in Newfoundland and Labrador were the most likely to discard these wastes with regular garbage, flush them down the sink or toilet or bury them. More than two-thirds of households with unwanted medications in the province used these uncontrolled methods of disposal.

Almost two-thirds of households in Quebec and in Prince Edward Island returned the products to a pharmacy, drop-off centre or depot, which provide more controlled methods of disposal.

Reasons for these provincial differences are unclear. For example, Alberta and British Columbia both have province-wide programs to collect unused and expired medications at participating pharmacies.6 Yet Albertans were more likely than British Columbians to report disposal of their medications using a controlled disposal method.

Dead batteries

Batteries power toys, watches, cellular phones, music players and other common household and personal items. In 2004, an estimated 450 million consumer batteries were sold in Canada and approximately 348 million were discarded.7

While placing a small number of normal alkaline batteries in the trash is not particularly harmful, some batteries including lead-acid, lithium, nickel-cadmium, silver oxide and mercury batteries do pose a higher threat. These batteries can contain heavy metals, many of which are toxic substances scheduled under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999.8 Disposal of large numbers of batteries can also pose a safety risk, since the batteries can react and overheat.

Municipal household hazardous waste (HHW) programs provide drop-off options for some consumer batteries. Other household batteries are managed through voluntary programs by organizations such as the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation. These programs facilitate and carry out recycling of the metals contained in household batteries. Many provinces are considering legislation covering recycling and disposal methods for the batteries contained in laptop computers and other electronic equipment.9

Batteries end up in the trash—except in Prince Edward Island

According to the Households and the Environment Survey, 60% of households put dead batteries in the trash in 2005 (Chart 2). These batteries eventually end up in landfills or incinerators. Just over a quarter of households with unwanted batteries used drop-off centers or depots. The remaining households still had them at home.

Chart 2 Treatment of dead batteries, 2005. Opens a new browser window.

Chart 2
Treatment of dead batteries, 2005

Proper disposal of batteries is most common in Prince Edward Island—the only province where controlled disposal methods outstrip disposal through the regular waste stream. Just over half of households in the province returned dead batteries to a depot. Even in Nova Scotia, a province with a comprehensive waste management plan, less than a quarter of households with unwanted batteries used a special waste depot or a battery supplier such as a retail outlet.

Computers and communication devices

Computers, cellular phones and personal digital assistants (PDAs) have become almost ubiquitous in Canada. Sales of computer hardware and software went from $3.0 billion in 1998 to over $4.2 billion in 2006.10 Cell phone ownership rose from 22% of households in 1997 to 64% in 2005.11

According to Environment Canada, information technology (IT) and telecom products contain hazardous and toxic substances ranging from lead, mercury and beryllium in computer monitors to arsenic, cadmium and lead in mobile phones.12

A study commissioned by Environment Canada estimated that 81,000 tonnes of IT and telecom equipment were recycled and disposed of in 2002. Computers and monitors accounted for 70% of this total. The study projected that recycling and disposal of IT waste would increase to 91,000 tonnes in 2010.13

Most special waste depots will now accept IT materials. For example, product stewardship programs such as the Electronics Recycling Program in Alberta, which requires electronics suppliers to charge an environmental fee on the sale of designated electronic products, are being put into place. Consumers are asked to bring old equipment to collection points throughout the province for processing and recycling.14

Over a third of households store unused or obsolete computers and communication devices

Computers and other IT/telecom devices constantly change to keep pace with technological advances. As a result, these items are frequently replaced. When such equipment is replaced, older items are often put in storage. Over a third of households still had old IT waste in the home at the time of the survey. These consumers may not want to put these items with their normal trash, but may not be aware of safe methods of dealing with this waste.

Almost half of households with IT waste gave it away, used drop-off depots or returned it to a supplier, while 16% of households put it in the trash and 5% used other methods of disposal (Table 1). Donating used equipment, taking it back, or using a depot was most common in Alberta (57%).

Table 1 Treatment of unwanted computers or communication devices, by province, 2005. Opens a new browser window.

Table 1
Treatment of unwanted computers or communication devices, by province, 2005

Paint—a clear picture

Households in Canada seem to be getting the picture about the controlled disposal of one special waste—old paint.

Paints are accepted at nearly all special waste depots. Paint stewardship programs such as the Québec Paint Recovery Program15 and Saskatchewan's Post-Consumer Paint Stewardship Program16 have also been established in many provinces. These programs collect leftover paint and containers for recycling and disposal and are funded through fees paid at the point of purchase. Latex paint cans are also accepted for regular municipal disposal or recycling in many jurisdictions if the paint has hardened on the bottom of the can.

In 2005, 29% of households had leftover paint they wanted to be rid of. More than half of these households used special waste depots or returned it to the supplier for disposal (Chart 3).

Nevertheless, a significant portion (38%) reported that they still had old paint at home, possibly because they did not know what to do with it. Only a small proportion of households put it in the trash or used some other method of disposal. There were very few differences provincially.

Chart 3 Leftover paint disposal, 2005. Opens a new browser window.

Chart 3
Leftover paint disposal, 2005


Improper disposal of special waste items can pose environmental, health and safety risks. Although collection programs exist in many parts of the country to safely dispose of and recycle special wastes, a large number of households may not know how to access these programs, given that many dispose of these wastes through the normal waste stream or through the sanitary sewage system.


  1. Special wastes are not limited to those discussed in this article, but can include, among other materials, used hypodermic needles, unwanted pesticides or empty propane tanks.
  2. Statistics Canada, Table 080-0018 - Retail commodity survey based on the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS), computed annual total (dollars), CANSIM (database), (accessed December 21, 2007).
  3. Guillaume Dubé, 2006, "Competing for the Retail Drug Market ," Analysis in Brief, Statistics Canada catalogue no. 11-621-M, no. 048, (accessed October 1, 2007).
  4. Health Canada, 2007, Proper Use and Disposal of Medication, (accessed September 13, 2007).
  5. National Association of Pharmacy Regulatory Authorities, 2002, Recycling and Disposal of Dispensed Drugs, (accessed September 14, 2007).
  6. Environment Canada, 2007, Extended Producer Responsibility & Stewardship: Pharmaceuticals,(accessed October 2, 2007).
  7. Environment Canada, 2007, Canadian Consumer Battery Baseline Study Final Report, (accessed September 11, 2007).
  8. Environment Canada, 1999, Canadian Environmental Protection Act, (accessed October 17, 2007).
  9. Environment Canada, 2007, Canadian Consumer Battery Baseline Study Final Report, (accessed September 11, 2007).
  10. Statistics Canada, Table 080-0018, CANSIM (database).
  11. Statistics Canada, Table 203-0020 - Survey of household spending (SHS), household equipment at December 31, by province, territory and selected metropolitan areas, annual, CANSIM (database), (accessed December 21, 2007).
  12. RIS International Ltd., 2003, Information Technology (IT) and Telecommunication (Telecom) Waste in Canada – 2003 Update Report to Environment Canada, Toronto.
  13. RIS International, Ltd., 2003.
  14. Environment Canada, 2007, Extended Producer Responsibility and Stewardship: Electronics Recycling Programme, (accessed September 13, 2007).
  15. Environment Canada, 2007, Extended Producer Responsibility and Stewardship: Québec Paint Recovery Program, (accessed September 7, 2007).
  16. Environment Canada, 2007, Extended Producer Responsibility and Stewardship. Post-Consumer Paint Stewardship Programme, (accessed September 27, 2007).