Toxic Substances

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The careless disposal of products containing toxic or hazardous substances can create health hazards if allowed to decompose and leach into the groundwater from landfills or if vaporized in incinerators. Since hazardous-waste landfills are limited, the available options are either to have manufacturers substitute toxic materials with nontoxic substances or recycle the products that contain toxic materials. Municipalities are just beginning to consider the requirements of toxic-waste recycling. Products that are toxic or contain toxic substances include paint, batteries, tires, some plastics, pesticides, cleaning and drain-cleaning agents, and PCBs found in white goods (appliances). Separate collections are also required for medical wastes.

Batteries play an important role in the recycling of toxic substances. Batteries represent a $2.5 billion-a-year market. At present, practically no batteries are being recycled in the United States. Battery manufacturers feel that recycling is neither practical nor necessary; instead, they feel that all that needs to be done is to lower the quantities of toxic materials in batteries. It is estimated that 28 million car batteries are landfilled or incinerated every year. This number contains 260,000 tons of lead, which can damage human neurological and immunological systems. The billions of household batteries disposed of yearly contain 170 tons of mercury and 200 tons of cadmium. The first can cause neurological and genetic disorders, the second, cancer. Some batteries also contain manganese dioxide, which causes pneumonia. When incinerated, some of these metals evaporate. The excessive emissions of mercury were the reason why Michigan temporarily suspended the operation of the incinerator in Detroit, the nation's largest.

Some states have recently initiated efforts to force manufacturers to collect and recycle or safely dispose of their batteries. The Battery Council International has prompted several states to pass laws requiring recycling of all used car batteries. In many European countries used batteries are returned to the place of purchase for disposal.

The disposal of white goods (appliances such as refrigerators, air conditioners, microwave ovens) is also a problem. Until 1979 appliance capacitors were allowed to contain PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls). Even after the ban, some manufacturers were granted an extra year or two to deplete their inventories. When white goods are shredded, the "fluff" remaining after the separation of metals (consisting of rubber, glass, plastics, and dirt) is landfilled. When it was found that the "fluff" contains more than 50 ppm of PCBs, the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries advised its 1,800 members not to handle white goods. The safe disposal of PCB-containing white goods would require scrap dealers to remove the capacitors before shredding. Similar toxic-waste disposal problems are likely to arise in connection with electronic and computing devices, the printed circuit boards of which contain heavy metals.

A long-range solution to toxic-waste disposal might be to require manufacturers of new products containing toxic substances to arrange for recycling before the product is allowed on the market, or at least to provide instruction labels describing the recommended steps in recycling.

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