Identifying, Storing and Disposing of Hazardous Materials Keeping Your Residents and Staff Safe

Most of us rarely think twice before tossing a banana peel into the garbage can. Which is fine! Anything from a deflated bike to an old boot can usually be thrown in the trash without a second thought. But there are some items that must be disposed of with more care and diligence. Multifamily buildings produce a lot of waste material, some of which can be dangerous if it gets grouped together and thrown away with everyday household items.

All buildings and associations should have a plan in place that lets unit owners and staff alike know what items are deemed hazardous; how they should be disposed of; and when and where that disposal should take place in order to avoid accidental exposure and keep everyone safe and healthy. 

Materially Hazardous

A fairly eclectic assortment of materials can prove hazardous when disposed of improperly. But as a rule of thumb, the classifications that require special care are electronics, oils, and chemicals.

“As a manager of a 288-unit complex, I am concerned with any item that would threaten the safety of the residents living in a multifamily dwelling,” says Ann Marie Aldrich, a community association manager with the Woodside Village Condominium Association, Inc., in Clearwater, Florida. “Offhand, this would include oil, grease, paints, and chemicals.”

John Kadim, a portfolio property manager with Thayer & Associates, Inc., in Cambridge, Massachusetts, warns against electronics of all sizes, but especially the smaller, sneakier kind. “Many times, smaller electronics are ‘snuck’ into the regular trash,” he says. “Most people dispose of chemicals, light bulbs, and things that are not usually given a second thought in their garbage cans simply because they fit in there. Whether light bulbs, chemicals, computers, TVs, paints, etc., all of these materials should be given careful consideration and afforded a special disposal process to protect the environment, especially where disposal is locally prohibited.”

Jory Carrick, President of Williamson Management in Bensenville, Illinois, agrees. “Computers, TVs, paints, and oil or gas from vehicles and machinery present the greatest disposal challenge for the most part, as many homeowners simply discard these without consideration of the environment or proper methods for removal,” he says. “Computers and TVs typically end up at the end of a driveway, or at the ‘garbage’ corral, without any identifier to determine ownership. And many refuse companies flat out will not take electronics. Oftentimes, the items end up sitting there, waiting for management to retrieve and dispose of them properly. Since resident ‘dumpers’ aren’t identifiable unless caught in the act, or unless they place their ill-considered waste at the end of their own separate driveways, there’s not much management companies can do in terms of enforcement. We do try to offset this through public communications to the residents, but when someone really wants to rid their home of an electronic, they find a way — usually under the cloak of darkness.”

Carrick also warns against improper disposal of paints and oils. “Paints are a concern, because the mixing of unknown chemicals inside garbage totes creates a hazardous condition, and dumping them in landfills is environmentally hazardous. And then there have been times when a resident will dispose of oils and fuels from a vehicle or piece of machinery by simply pouring them into a street drain, without any consideration as to where they’ll end up — which is usually lakes, streams, or water reclamation areas. We’re all aware of the inherent and obvious dangers of such disposal methods, and what these oils and fuels do to plants, animals, and fish.”

Risk Management

So there’s a sizable list of materials that are problematic when they get disposed of alongside regular, run-of-the-mill garbage. Fine. But then, what should the owner of a top-of-the-line chainsaw do with its oil when it’s time for a change? Where should a resident place their bucket of burnt-out light bulbs that has begun to run over?

“The dominant concerns of waste disposal companies seem to be chemicals, paints, and electronics,” notes Kadim. “Many cities and towns have special disposal days for these, for which homeowners can sign up on their own. However, I’ve found that those in condos are generally less-inclined to make the special trip or effort when disposing of these things. Legally, they can’t be tossed out with the regular trash, but specific disposal instructions vary, depending on the waste company.” 

Aldrich praises the approach her county takes in holding regular ‘mobile collection events’. “Almost every month, whether at a Home Depot, a high school, or a community center, the county brings in a mobile unit so that residents can dispose of cell phones, computer towers, monitors, rechargeable batteries, TVs, auto fluids, cooking oil, paint, paint removers, and so forth,” she says. “I post the events on the bulletin board of our clubhouse, and many of our residents also have their own trucks or vans. It’s great when the community comes together to gather these items and take advantage of these events, or carpool together to a drop-off site.”

Should an association or an individual find themselves at a loss as to how they should contain hazardous materials in between drop-off dates, Carrick says that many options are available online. “The internet is a great source as to what type of containers and environments are ideal for storing paints, chemicals, fuels, etc., as certain containers must have specific properties in order to hold the item in question. If the container is inadequate, the chemical can eat away at it, causing leakage, which can prove dangerous and harmful. And each city can serve as a great resource for disposal, as can scavenger companies. Additionally, a local hardware store may also be an authorized receiver of certain chemical waste materials. Simply identifying what you are trying to dispose of to the relevant municipal or scavenging source will provide great direction as to the necessary steps required to do so safely.”

“Better Safe Than Sorry”

While a little spilled paint shouldn’t trigger a visit from a hazmat-suited cleanup crew, it’s important not to downplay the degree to which improper disposal of hazardous materials can lead to health risks and physical harm. If there’s ever doubt as to how to get rid of something potentially dangerous, an association should reach out to its local municipality or environmental service organization to advise on next steps.

“We once had a unit owner come upon an unmarked steel drum in a wooded area that had previously been a landfill,” recalls Robin Steiner, President of RMR Residential Realty, LLC, in Elmsford, New York. “The barrel had rusted into the ground, and it basically camouflaged itself. Fortunately I knew some hazmat disposal people, so I asked them to do me a favor and come dispose of it properly. This isn’t an area in which you want to play around. It turned out not to be hazardous, but better safe than sorry.

“The biggest issues you might find today are probably underground oil tanks or, in an older building, someone at some point may have forgotten to remove the asbestos,” Steiner continues. “We’ve had to call in a licensed asbestos professional; we’ve taken on properties that were dealing with oil spills. One of the latter was an old gas station that still had tanks on the premises. You have to call in the Department of 

Environmental Conservation, and they’ll track the location on a computer forever. That type of professional isn’t going to screw around. If I have an oil issue or something on that level, I’m going to reach out to an environmental agency and say ‘I have this problem; please deal with it.’ This isn’t the type of instance in which I’m going to try and save some money.”

Carrick relates a different type of oil debacle. “About a year or so ago, we had a resident pour a massive volume of oil down a street drain. It was soon discovered by a village inspector who routinely inspects the main lines, and the village threatened considerable fines and a call to the EPA if a professional company wasn’t immediately hired to clean out the main sewer line. So we had to find a company that specializes in oil recycling and clean-up to come immediately, camera the line, and, using a large commercial vacuum truck, remove all of the dangerous chemical from that main line, until it was completely oil-free. The cost of the project was billed to the resident’s assessment account immediately, and exceeded $5,000. Had the association not taken immediate and aggressive action, it would have been fined for chemical dumping — not to mention additional removal charges once the oil had spread and caused more damage.”

Improper chemical disposal is not so much a ‘stitch in time’ scenario as it is a ‘don’t do it ever’ situation. Boards should make sure that residents are aware of the rules regarding hazardous materials in their area, and encourage the whole community to rid themselves of these things in a safe and organized fashion. They most likely cannot afford the alternative!

Mike Odenthal is a staff writer/reporter for The Cooperator. 

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