HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif.—A homeowner had her first brush with the law this April when she was slapped with a SI, GOO fine for dumping waste water into the street in front of her borne after cleaning latex paint from brushes. An investigator told the Huntington Bcach & Fountain Valley Independent that if the water had reached a storm drain, she could have been fined another $10,000 and spent time in jail.
This is not a horror story from some futuristic society with
"Big Brother" environmental storm troopers. It actually happened, and it could happen to you.
Most woodworkers accumulate an assortment of half-used cans of paint, stains and other volatile, flammable or hazardous chemicals. In fact, Americans generate 1.6 million tons of this "household hazardous waste" each year. Disposing of it improperly can have a negative impact on the environment as well as some nasty legal consequences. Although not all communities arc as strict as Huntington Bcach, it is clearly time for everyone, including hobbyists, to catch up with the latest environmental regulations.
What ¡s Hazardous?
Almost all finishing materials, even most water-based materials, arc considered hazardous for waste disposal purposes by the Environmental Protection Agency. This includes varnish. lacquer, paints, stains, strippers and solvents, although their labels can sometimes be misleading. I recently saw a label on a conuiiner of paint remover that touted the material as "biodegradable." I don't doubt this is true of the stripper in its pure form, but once mixed with dissolved paint, the resulting sludge is no longer biodegradable.
Even solvents that are relatively harmless to use can create havoc in a landfill when mixed with other discarded materials, or when they get into the soil or water table. The general rule for finishing materials is: If in doubt, assume you can't legally throw it out.
So what's a conscientious woodworker to do? First learn what you're legally allowed to throw out. Local ordinances probably prohibit mixing cans of paint or other liquid finishing materials with your household trash, but to find out for sua*, call your local department of sanitation or solid waste management. If these aren't listed, try your local municipal government office. Your trash hauler also should be able to tell you what you arc permitted to add to the waste stream, which may depend upon the type of waste the receiving landfill is licensed to accept.
Next, find out if your county or municipality regularly collects household hazardous wastes. More than 3,(MM) communities now sponsor periodic collections or provide drop-off sites for leftover paints and solvents.
If you can't get rid of your waste in these ways, your best bet is to convcrt it to solid form (sec below) and then discard it in the trash. Dried paints and coatings are far less troublesome in landfills than liquids.
Paints, lacquers, varnlshes-'l'he ideal way to deal with the problem of unusable leftover finishes is not to have any. Buy only what you need, in small containers if possible, and use it all. I try to use up leftover finish by adding an extra coat to surfaces that get more wear, such as tabletops. even if it Isn't absolutely necessary. If I still have some finish left, I'll brush or spray the extra onto scrap-wood or cardboard, then throw it out oncc the paint has dried. Landfills don't mind painted scraps. As for the finish Uiat clings to the inside of the can, simply
JUST lili open the container and let it dry completely before tossing the can.
Solvents-It's easy to get rid of clean solvents. They will eventually evaporate completely if you open the container. But if you do this, make sure you place the open can in a well-ventilated area—preferably outside—and away from children and other air breathers. Sometimes I use a large metal evaporating tray to speed up the process. I do the same with solvents that have been used for cleaning brushes. After the solvent evaporates, you can seal the small amount of dried residue in the can and throw it in the trash.
Most finishing solvents are VOCs (volatile organic compounds) and, as such, contribute to the air pollution problem. However, the amount you arc likely to release into the air is infinitesimal compared with other sources of pollution, like your car's exhaust. All things considered, these solvents are less damaging to the environment as vapors in the air than as liquids in the soil.
Stains-Pigment stains arc actually thin paints, and you can handle them like paints. (See above.) Some dye stains, including the water-based ones you mix from powders, will evaporate completely, leaving only a dry residue in the container. Seal the can and throw it away.
Paint remover sludge-Paint remover is a mix of solvents that redissolves paint and varnish, allowing you to scrape the resulting sludge off the wood. If you let the solvents evaporate, you end up with landfill-safe redried paint. I always scrape the sludge onto old newspapers, then let them air out until they are completely stiff and dry before I throw them away.
Clean-up water—I've described how to dispose of solvent used for cleaning varnish brushes, but what about the water used to clean brushes filled with water-based materials? Labels on water-based paints and clear coatings tell you to rinse your brushes in the sink. This is fine if you're tied into a sewer system —the small amount of paint left in your brushes will not cause any problems if you rinse it down the drain. But if you have a septic tank, rinse your brushes in a pail of water, then let the water evaporate as you would other solvents. Whatever you do, don't just dump waste water on the soil or the driveway—especially if you live in Huntington Beach.
Editor's Note: The HP A offers a free pamphlet on managing household hazardous waste. For a copy, call (800) 424-9546. A
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