Hesperian Health Guides

Getting Rid of Trash Safely

In this chapter:

Whatever cannot be reused, recycled, or composted should be gotten rid of safely. Some people say burning trash is best. Others prefer to bury it, to avoid the smoke produced by burning trash. The fact is, both of these ways of disposing of trash have problems.

In places where paper and cardboard cannot be reused, recycled, or composted, they can be shredded and burned in fires for cooking and heating. But burning even small amounts of plastic or rubber releases toxic chemicals such as dioxins, furans, and PCBs that cause many health problems (see The Problem of Burning Waste and Chapter 16: Harm from Toxic Chemicals).

3 people talk as they toss trash into a fire.
I burn my trash to keep my house clean and safe from rats.
I think the smoke from plastic is worse than the rats!
Rats or smoke, it’s all bad. Better we should not make so much trash in the
first place.

Waste that cannot be handled in any other way can be buried in small pits or in a sanitary landfill. For small pit burial, simply dig a pit in an area away from water sources, put waste in the pit, and cover with soil.

When trash that contains harmful chemicals is buried, these chemicals can leak into the ground and contaminate drinking water. If there is no safe way to get rid of toxic trash (for example, by returning it to its manufacturer or treating it so it is no longer toxic), it is best to put it in a safely-lined sanitary landfill.

Toxic wastes

Toxic wastes are wastes containing chemicals that are very harmful to our health and the environment.

The best way to prevent harm from toxic waste is to stop it from being produced. Governments should ban toxic products and production processes. Communities can promote the use of alternatives to toxic household products and labor unions can promote alternatives in industry. Making collection or drop off centers for toxics convenient can keep them from polluting land and community water systems.

(To learn more about toxics, see Chapter 14: Pesticides Are Poison, Chapter 16: Harm from Toxic Chemicals, and Chapter 20: Preventing and Reducing Harm from Toxics.)

A man and child drink from a barrel on which the word "Pesticide" is crossed out and "Drinking water" is written.
A man destroys the barrel with a pickaxe.
Destroy toxic materials containers so they cannot be used to store other things, especially food or water.

Safe handling and disposal of toxic wastes

Because safe disposal of toxic wastes can be complicated and costly, it is best if governments enforce guidelines for the use, storage, and disposal of toxics. This should include education and training of community members to safely handle and get rid of toxic wastes. Here are some practical guidelines for handling toxic wastes:

  • Store toxic products away from food and water, and away from where children can reach them.
  • Keep toxic products in their original containers, and never remove the labels. This helps prevent the containers from being reused for water or food storage.
  • Keep toxic wastes separate from other household wastes.
  • Do not burn toxic wastes! This spreads the chemicals through ash and smoke, and sometimes it creates even more dangerous chemicals.
  • Do not put toxic materials down latrines, toilets, drains, drainage channels, in waterways, or onto the ground.

Check with local health authorities and resource recovery centers to learn the best ways to get rid of toxic wastes in your area.

Disposing of common toxics

These common household products create harmful waste if they are not handled with care and gotten rid of safely.

Paint and paint containers. Store closed paint cans in a cool place. Once all the paint is used, flatten paint containers, wrap them in newspaper, put them in plastic bags, and bury them in a sanitary landfill. Latex paint is less toxic than other paints, but needs the same disposal methods as other paint.

Solvents (degreasers, turpentine, paint removers). Store solvents in closed containers in a cool place, so they will not cause a fire. Once all the solvent is used, punch holes in the containers so they cannot be reused. Flatten the containers, wrap them in newspaper, put them in plastic bags, and put them in sanitary landfills or sealed containers.

Used motor oil. Never pour oil onto the ground or into waterways. Store it in closed containers. Used oil can sometimes be recycled by auto servicing stations. Used motor oil can also be used to coat wooden posts for building, to prevent them from rotting in the ground, and can also be burned as heating oil in some heaters.

Batteries and containers labelled "Flea and tick dip" "Insect dust" "Paint" "Degreaser" "Hair perm" "Bleach" and "Paint thinner."
These common products are harmful, and make harmful waste, if not handled with care.

Batteries. In some places, batteries can be recycled. But recycling batteries by hand is dangerous and should not be done without proper training and protective equipment.

Pesticides. Make holes in or destroy pesticide containers so they cannot be reused. Bury them in a sanitary landfill. Learn how to use fewer pesticides in farming or in the home.

Waste from health care activities such as bloody bandages, dirty needles and other sharp tools, discarded medicines, and so on. To learn how to reduce, store, and best handle health care waste, see Chapter 19.

This page was updated:05 Jan 2024