Though dumping is a frequent sight in our community, it’s dangerous, as those chemicals contaminate our drinking water. But besides being unhealthy and flagrantly illegal, dumping chemicals is stupid. Especially because residents can drop them off at no charge.
San Joaquin County has a household hazardous waste facility, paid for through garbage bills, where residents can drop off leftover paint, used oil, pool chemicals, pesticides, fertilizers, cleaning supplies, fluorescent tubes, CFLs, e-waste and batteries.
The HHW facility is a solid block building near the Stockton Metropolitan Airport. Its out-of-the-way location belies the fact that it deals with the nastiest stuff our consumerism has to offer. It is open for residents from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. You don’t even have to park your car — it is literally a drive-thru hazardous waste drop-off. Drive in, park under cover, and they will remove items from your car. That’s it.
Touring the facility might seem an odd thing to do, but I was curious after dropping off some old paint. What do they do with the stuff?
My guide was Ollie Janvrin, HHW’s onsite manager. Clad in safety goggles, a jumpsuit and tough work boots, she might have looked like Rosie the Riveter, but she definitely had a no-nonsense seriousness to managing the facility. Simply put, she said, any mistake could lead to injury or death.
All staffers take a minimum 40-hour certification training. Beyond that, more training and a chemistry background and common sense have a lot to do with handling unmarked or mislabeled chemicals. Ollie showed me a substance in a paste wax tin. To me, it looked liked graphite dust; in reality, it was gunpowder.
At the facility, dropped-off chemicals are sorted. Oil filters are crushed and drained, along with used oil and antifreeze. Other chemicals are sorted into zones inside the building. Most of the floor is on a metal grid over lined 4-foot-square pits that are ventilated continuously. The idea is to separate spills and prevent mixing. The seriousness with which the HHW crew handles waste is worlds apart from the public’s awareness.
A quarter of what they get at the HHW is paint-related. If it is labeled and usable, it can be recycled immediately. Ollie’s tip: Listen for the “glop, glop” sound when shaking a paint can. It means the paint hasn’t separated. Usable chemicals and paint are put into the reuse room. Anyone can take 10 items from the room at no charge. Of the average 50,000 pounds of hazardous waste the processing facility gets each month, more than 17,000 pounds are recycled this way.
It should be noted, though, that hazardous chemicals are not treated on-site, only meticulously packaged for shipping and treatment elsewhere. Dangerous chemicals are boxed, nestled in golden vermiculite so no two containers touch.
But that’s beyond most residents, so I asked Ollie for advice on how to be safe when transporting the stuff to the facility.
Her answer about what not to do came in the form of a “world’s dumbest” moment. She related when one county resident put her infant in the back seat next to a container of gasoline, motor oil and leaking paint in a plastic bag. Fumes filled the car. When asked why she didn’t put the chemicals in the trunk, the woman said she didn’t want the substances to leak.
Ollie’s advice is to keep items in their original containers and to transport items in the trunk, in cardboard boxes. Don’t mix different kinds of products together in case they leak.
n For a change: Educate yourself about the power of chemicals. Read precautionary labels before you buy and use them. Choose less-toxic labels that read “Caution” or “Warning,” rather than “Danger” or “Poison.”
n To make a difference: Buy only what you need, and less will have to be recycled or discarded. For paint, use the calculator at www.sjcrecycle.org under “Paint and Coatings” to determine more precisely how much you need.
n To make a stand: Return all unused chemicals to the household hazardous waste facility. If it requires protection for your skin, special ventilation, or protection from pets and children, it requires special handling. For a list of items that can be turned in, visit
• Christina D.B. Frankel has lived in Tracy for more than 22 years and is an architect and mother of three. Her column, Living Green, runs every so often in the Tracy Press.