Specialty Waste Disposal

Most people realize that when it comes to waste disposal, there is no “away.”  All waste ends up somewhere, and, in fact, due to the wide variety of items in the waste stream, there are quite a few different places waste can go.  Instead of trying to throw all kinds of waste “away,” it is better to consider the most responsible method of disposal for each waste type.  Composting and standard recycling (glass, metals, plastics, paper, and cardboard) can make a big dent in the volume of waste discarded, but what happens to the rest?  That’s where specialty waste disposal and recycling come in.


Waste composition and management have shifted greatly over time.  In preindustrial times, waste largely consisted of wood, bones, ash, food, and pottery.  Such refuse decomposed on its own.  Waste did not become a societal problem until the population boomed and more people began to live in densely packed cities.  Trash was burned, buried, or simply left to pile up, attracting pests, contaminating water, and spreading disease.  Because of this, cities started to develop waste management strategies, the beginnings of organized waste collection and landfilling.

Presently, there are myriad types of waste, most of which were not designed with safe disposal in mind.  Not only are the long-standing issues of sanitation and sheer volume of waste still relevant, newer concerns around materials’ impacts on the environment and human health have emerged.

Types of Waste

In addition to the most common recyclable materials, there are numerous other items that can be recycled.  (Learn more about recyclable materials here.)  Products should not be thrown away simply because they require special treatment for safe disposal.  Many items are composed of a variety of materials, some of which can be recycled, some of which must be handled carefully, and some that cannot currently be used or diverted from landfills.  While such items can be dismantled to reduce waste and salvage materials, they are often discarded without consideration of other options.  The following are just a few of the objects that should be disposed of in places other than the trash can:

  • Fluorescent light bulbs
  • Electronics: cells phones, computers, printers, televisions, digital cameras, and other e-waste
  • Printer cartridges
  • Tires
  • Batteries (including car batteries)
  • Construction and demolition waste (including lead products and asbestos)
  • Household hazardous waste: aerosols, paints and solvents, pesticides, automotive fluids, cleaning agents
  • Medical waste: sharps, pharmaceuticals
  • Appliances containing refrigerants: refrigerators, freezers, window air conditioning units, dehumidifiers

Where and How to Recycle/Dispose of Waste

E-waste (flickr: Mosman Council)

E-waste (flickr: Mosman Council)

Reuse, when possible, is preferable to recycling, as it extends a product’s useful life in its current form.  Therefore, the first option for disposing of an item should be finding out if it can be sold or donated.  Electronics, working appliances, clothing, and household items can be given to friends or local charities or gotten rid of through sites such as Freecycle or Craigslist or various social media groups.  Surplus building materials, office supplies, product samples, and more can be donated to organizations like Construction Junction, Pittsburgh Center for Creative Reuse and the Habitat for Humanity ReStore.

Pennsylvania Resources Council holds periodic collection events for hard-to-recycle/e-waste items, pharmaceuticals, and household chemicals as part of its Zero Waste Pittsburgh program.  A schedule of these events, as well as descriptions of what items are collected, can be found here.  Pennsylvania Resources Council partnered with Appliance Warehouse to add expanded polystyrene (styrofoam) to the list of collected materials!

1-800-RECYCLING.COM is a wonderful resource for finding the nearest places to dispose of all kinds of items.  Some companies do charge fees for picking up or accepting certain waste types, but others have financial incentive programs that will actually pay, for example, to take old, inefficient appliances off the market.  Not all waste and recycling facilities are equal, so it’s wise to ask about their disposal practices for particular products.

Commercial properties face more challenges regarding the disposal of certain kinds of waste.  Conducting a waste audit is a good place to start.  This process provides insight into what the waste stream is composed of, opening up possibilities for waste reduction or diversion.  Owners may need to work with several different waste service providers depending on the amount of various types of waste produced (recyclables, compost, landfill, hazardous waste, etc.).

Finally, when we refer to the phrase “Reduce, Re-use, Recycle” it is best to follow this hierarchy: first reduce consumption and the purchase of new items, then re-use as possible, and finally recycle waste if possible to avoid sending items to the landfill.

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