Toxic-Waste Reduction Must Head Home


THERE'S good news about controlling toxic-waste pollution - good, that is, as far as it goes. Environmental engineer James W. Patterson of the Illinois Institute of Technology has outlined in the journal Environmental Science & Technology how an enlightened waste management perspective has permeated the United States. From government and industry to local communities, the emphasis has shifted from treatment and ``safe'' disposal to actual waste reduction.

Industry has made substantial strides toward that goal. Much remains to be done. But enough progress has been made, Professor Patterson says, for industry to be in a position to face the even more demanding challenge of avoiding the production of toxic wastes altogether in many cases.

That's encouraging. But what happens to all this enlightened awareness when the individuals involved go home? One of the biggest polluters of all - the aggregate of users and disposers of hazardous home chemicals - has scarcely begun to share the new environmental consciousness. Moreover, individuals who do want to do the right thing have few options.

Cornell University human ecologist Ann Lemley and Cornell home economist Martha Shortlidge, drawing on Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) statistics, note that 4 percent of US household solid wastes are hazardous. They add that US residents, on average, put out about 2 pounds of waste per person per day of which perhaps 1 percent might be hazardous. This does not take account of unmeasured quantities of wastes that go down drains into the country's nearly 20 million septic systems.

Something like 450 programs to collect and deal properly with hazardous home wastes have gotten underway in 43 states over the past eight years with EPA encouragement. But many of them operate on a once-a-year basis, as is the case in my own hometown. Many people probably find, as we did last spring, that the collection facility filled up before our end of the line reached the collectors. The box of old paint, used snow blower oil, and whatnot came back home again.

Household wastes are a massive source of toxic pollution that hasn't even reached the level of proper treatment and disposal, let alone waste reduction and avoidance of waste generation. The whole consumer economy is geared to mass marketing of useful products in disposable containers that are destined to become hazardous waste. It's time to take this serious environmental problem seriously.

The EPA is preparing proposed legislation to further encourage waste reduction in industry. Congress already has a bill before it from Rep. Howard Volpe (D)of Mich. that would empower EPA to promote such reduction through state grants and information exchange centers. States need this kind of help to begin proper collection - let alone reduction - of hazardous household waste. The EPA encouragement of waste collection centers has been technical, not financial. Any new broad toxic-waste legislation should provide funding to encourage such centers to be open the year around.

Congress also should seriously tackle the knotty question of how to reshape the economy of household products in ways that will lead to substantial reduction in the use of materials that end up as toxic waste. Congress probably will find that, difficult as it has seemed, dealing with industrial wastes is the easier problem.

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