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What is Toxic Waste?

Nicole Madison
Updated May 17, 2024
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Toxic waste is a type of waste that can be hazardous to humans, other living creatures, and plants. The various types of waste materials that fall under this heading can pollute the environment and threaten life in a number of ways. They can be found not only on land, but also in the air and water. When people are exposed to toxic waste, they may become ill or die. Some types of hazardous waste cause cancer, for example, or lead to the development of birth defects; plant and animal life may also face death when exposed to some types of waste.

Radioactive waste is one type of toxic waste. It is produced as a byproduct of other processes, including, but not limited to, those that involve the generation of power. Medical waste is another type of hazardous waste. This includes substances that cannot be disposed of with regular trash, such as blood, body tissues, medical instruments that have touched blood, and medical chemicals. The agricultural industry can also be a source of toxic waste, such as when chemical fertilizers and pesticides contaminate not only the soil, but also groundwater.

Improper chemical waste disposable is yet another contributor to toxic waste. Potentially dangerous chemicals are used in a wide variety of industries and for many different purposes. When they are not disposed of properly, they can harm many different types of life. Even some chemicals that seem innocuous can have devastating effects.

Often, people think of industry as responsible for toxic waste, but individuals are frequently at fault as well. Each time a person fails to dispose of a potentially hazardous item properly he may be contributing to the overall problem. There are many household items a person may need to take extra care with when it comes to disposal. Among them are medications, batteries, cleaning products, pesticides, and electronic devices. Even fluorescent lights can be a source of potential harm if they are not disposed of properly.

Many jurisdictions have laws in place that are supposed to protect humans, animals, and plants from toxic waste. These laws dictate how waste can be disposed of and regulate the generation of toxic waste as byproducts of other processes. Unfortunately, many companies, organizations, and individuals break the law and dispose of hazardous waste in city dumps and in water. Others may do their best to follow regulations but have accidents that cause dangerous pollution.

About Mechanics is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Nicole Madison
By Nicole Madison
Nicole Madison's love for learning inspires her work as a About Mechanics writer, where she focuses on topics like homeschooling, parenting, health, science, and business. Her passion for knowledge is evident in the well-researched and informative articles she authors. As a mother of four, Nicole balances work with quality family time activities such as reading, camping, and beach trips.
Discussion Comments
By anon347118 — On Sep 03, 2013

Toxic waste is bad for the society and people should take care and dispose of it properly.

By pleonasm — On Jul 27, 2011

Nuclear waste is quite difficult to get rid of. I had a friend who was hired by a French nuclear power plant as a kind of intern so she could learn their recycling methods. They are hoping the United States will start using those methods one day soon.

Without the methods there is a lot more radioactive waste, and unfortunately the United States wouldn't use the recycling methods because they make it easier for people to use the waste to make bombs.

But, there is just nowhere to put the waste they are making, so they have to make a compromise at some point.

By umbra21 — On Jul 26, 2011

@feruze - The worst thing about it is that it can take years for the damage to show up. Groundwater often moves very slowly.

So, the general public might not realize there is a problem until 20 years after the problem started.

Lakes that are close to landfill might not see problems from toxic waste for years, but once they do start having problems there's almost nothing that can be done to stop them because there is years worth of toxic waste backed up in the soil and will continue to come through.

It's quite scary when you think about all the trouble that might happen.

By hyrax53 — On Jul 26, 2011

@lonelygod-This sort of goes along with what others have said, and you can find whole articles on this on the internet, but here is a quick summary.

Most places, your local hazardous waste disposal area might be able to take them, or can at least advise you on who can.

Pharmacies are also a good place, though in some areas they are not allowed to take expired drugs for fear of trying to turn a profit.

A third option, if you cannot find a solution otherwise and feel the medication in question is either especially harmful or addictive in the wrong hands, you could take it to a police station and have them find a disposal for it.

Throwing in the trash is a bad plan because over time, even if you pack the pills in large amounts of bags or containers, it could still leak out.

By Malka — On Jul 25, 2011

@feruze - That reminds me of the movie "Erin Brockovich". In that movie, a company's bad toxic waste disposal practices ended up contaminating the groundwater and making an entire community get sick with things like cancer.

There was also a woman in it who kept having miscarriages over and over -- judging by the article's comments about birth defects and illness, the movie wasn't over-dramatizing the dangers. The thought that the water you drink could be poisoning you is pretty scary stuff -- even worse if it's poisoning your family and your kids!

If "Erin Brockovich" is anything close to how a real life court case on groundwater contamination would go, some companies who are responsible for toxic waste ending up in people's water might manage to get around being held responsible through legal loopholes. That's a really scary thought, too, because then nobody's responsible for that pollution.

By Hawthorne — On Jul 24, 2011

@ahain - Federal guidelines or not, that doesn't really sound like a good idea. I mean, mixing the pills with coffee grounds or cat litter and sealing it up in the butter tub doesn't change the fact that the tub contains toxic waste that will end up in the trash in a landfill somewhere, it just delays the time until it leaks out into the ground...

Now I'm worried. If this is the federal guideline instructions for dealing with pills -- putting sealed toxic waste in landfills -- then is that how professionals dispose of the medication handed back in to them, too?

Is it possible to really ever get rid of toxic waste, or do we just keep looking for more creative ways to seal it up? Sooner or later, all of this toxicity is going to come back to haunt us, you know?

By ahain — On Jul 24, 2011

@hanley79 - Sound advice. However, you don't absolutely have to have a pill recycling program in your area to safely dispose of toxic waste your medication may cause.

Lonelygod, if you can't get rid of your pills from a pill recycling program, here's the step by step way to do it safely at home:

1. First check the labels. If any say to flush them, flush the contents down the toilet -- it's okay, those are safe to do that with.

2. Scribble over the labels of all bottles (including the flush ones, since you will still be throwing the bottle away) with a permanent black marker to hide your address, name and other information.

3. Take all of the pills out of their original containers and mix them thoroughly with used coffee grounds. If you don't have coffee grounds, use cat litter.

4. Put the mixture into a disposal plastic butter tub and close the lid.

5. Put the butter tub and bottles into your regular trash -- the coffee grounds or cat litter will help weaken the effects of the pills, while the sealed container will keep toxic waste from leaking.

This is more or less the federal guideline standard for disposing of pills safely, so trust me, it's safe and legal to do this. Hope it helps you out!

By hanley79 — On Jul 23, 2011

@lonelygod - Your instincts are right on this -- you aren't supposed to flush old medication down the toilet, for exactly the reasons you mentioned.

Often, pharmacies will do a drug recycling program and will accept back any expired drugs so that they can dispose of them safely. If your pharmacy has a drug take-back or recycling program, all you need to do is take your expired pills there and hand them in. If the pharmacy doesn't have such a program, do a web search for drug take-back programs in your town -- there's bound to be one available.

Last but not least, there are exceptions to everything. Occasionally there will be a type of medication that is okay to flush down the toilet, because prescription labels will say to flush it to dispose of it. I assume that these medications are not dangerous enough to be considered household toxic waste, so they're okay to flush.

By bear78 — On Jul 23, 2011

I know that factories often dispose of the chemicals they use in nearby land fills. This is really dangerous because with time, the chemicals seep through the soil and find their way into groundwater.

Groundwater is generally considered pure and clean because of the layers of soil and sediment filtering it. That used to be the case but now that there are more hazardous toxic wastes like chemicals and pesticides in the land and unfortunately it is getting into groundwater. The only way to make sure is to have the groundwater tested in the lab.

There are laws in the U.S. that place responsibility on companies producing toxic waste that threatens water and soil quality. If it is proven, the company causing it is responsible for cleaning it up.

By lonelygod — On Jul 22, 2011

If you have old pills that you no longer need what is the best way to dispose of them?

I am worried about just flushing the pills down the toilet because I don't want to harm our ground water with additional toxic waste. All of the pills I have are expired and as far as I know, aren't fit for human consumption anymore. I am willing to pay to have them taken care of, but I really don't know where to start. I just want all these old pills gone from my house. I am worried I will get them mixed up with my fresh pills and get sick.

By manykitties2 — On Jul 22, 2011

Learning about how to dispose of all the hazardous products in your home can be a good way to help with the toxic waste issues our world is facing.

I was surprised to learn that things like batteries and household paint should never just be tossed into the trash. The waste from these kinds of products can do serious harm if placed in a landfill.

Often cities will have a special day a few times a year where you can get rid of hazardous household waste. They usually publish a calendar that will give you the dates. Waiting for these special days is a good idea, and if you can't, there are always facilities where you can drop off the toxic waste.

Nicole Madison
Nicole Madison
Nicole Madison's love for learning inspires her work as a About Mechanics writer, where she focuses on topics like...
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