A solution for toxic trash

City gives Columbia residents a way to put household hazardous waste in its place
Monday, June 27, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 12:19 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

Bring your rat poison, your paint thinner, your batteries and your old gas.

While most drive-through services these days are handing out fast food or cash, the drive-through at Columbia’s household hazardous waste site is busy collecting all sorts of toxic materials.

“You don’t know what is going to happen to that stuff in a hundred years, or even two hundred years,” said Christine Gardener, recycling program assistant for the city. “The more toxins we can keep out of the landfill, the more stuff we can keep out of our groundwater, the air and the environment.”

The household haz-mat program, loosely modeled after a project in Chillicothe, is one of a handful of its kind in Missouri. The city developed the program in 1992 after a successful pilot project two years earlier. Funding comes from a basic fee included in residents’ utility bills.

Residents flock to the Grissum Building at 1313 Lakeview Ave. from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. the first and third Saturdays of each month, April through November, to rid their homes of various substances.

On June 18, Christina Brown was among scores of people who brought materials from home to the site.

“I don’t want to throw something away in the trash that is bad for the environment,” Brown said.

The list of items that shouldn’t go in the trash is surprisingly long. Flea collars, cell phones, shoe polish, caulk, mothballs, smoke detectors and digital cameras all should stay out of the landfill, according to a list on the city of Columbia’s hazardous waste Web site.

People taking waste to the Grissum Building will find two lanes separated by traffic cones set over a mosaic of cracked pavement. Volunteers clad in orange vests greet patrons and ask what they plan to discard. Gardener is in charge of finding volunteers to work two-hour shifts at the site.

“It is two hours that you can spend really helping the community and the environment,” she said.

Volunteers direct cars carrying less hazardous cargo such as paint and oil into the left lane, while vehicles with more dangerous chemicals go to the right.

Cars in the left lane enter a covered loading area where a 10-person crew toils away, sorting jettisoned products. An array of domestic waste lines either side of the lane. Workers remove motor oil, anti-freeze, herbicides, paint and polyurethane from vehicles and place it on wooden racks. They send some products to St. Louis, where Onyx Environmental Services incinerates them or takes them to a hazardous waste landfill.

Other items get a second life. Oil is collected and treated in the Columbia facility’s tanks, where it sits until it’s burned in winter to heat the building. Workers recycle paint by mixing gallons of it together by color and then distributing it to the public on a first-come, first-serve basis. The public can also snatch up car wax, wood cleaner, bleach and pesticides. Gardener said city employees sometimes use the materials, either taking them home or using them for city projects to save tax money.

Marigolds flourish in four wooden barrels outside two sheds at the waste center. It’s an odd sight because the sheds house everything from pesticides to fluorescent light bulbs — materials so toxic you can smell the vapors as you approach. Inside, crews crack aerosol cans, drain them into a 55-gallon drum and then crush them to conserve space.

Lab technicians Rick Hudnell and Mark Nichols say they’ve seen a lot of peculiar stuff come through, including jet fuel, dynamite, mercury, ammunition, outlawed pesticides and antique bottles of ether.

“We get a lot of old stuff when (someone’s) relative dies,” Hudnell said.

Before a car can enter the unloading area, volunteers give patrons pamphlets with tips for making the process safe for workers. If a substance is not in its original container, for instance, workers ask that it be labeled as a precaution. Unknown chemicals can hurt employees. Hudnell once suffered a chemical burn when sulfuric acid spilled onto his chest from an unlabeled jelly jar.

“It’s mostly safe, though,” Hudnell said. “If I hadn’t had this suit on, it would have been a lot worse.”

Hudnell and Nichols wear protective white body suits and masks to prevent them from inhaling hazardous fumes. Headbands keep sweat out of their eyes so they don’t wipe their faces with chemical-laden hands.

There are some things the site won’t accept. Volunteers regularly turn away people who bring large appliances, tires and old computer equipment.

Bill Crum and Sherrece Smith volunteer their time to keep things running smoothly. While they don’t consider themselves environmentalists, they do see the benefit in their work.

“I think they use the term ‘environmentalist’ so loosely,” Smith said. “We consider ourselves citizens doing what we can to keep the environment clean.”

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