Twice a year in Tulsa, the cars line up. Trunks and backseats are filled with cans of old paint, batteries of all kinds, and lots of chemicals considered too hazardous to be discarded with household trash.
"You can save things and then take them all at once and be done with them. I like that," said Barbara VanHanken, a board member of the Oklahoma Sierra Club who took part in the most recent collection event last month. "But if we had something available all the time so you didn't have to store it in your house or garage, that would be nice too."
Michael Patton, executive director for the Metropolitan Environmental Trust (MET), made a formal request to the Tulsa City Council in March seeking a permanent facility to handle such household hazardous waste. He estimated it would take $4 million in funding to build a permanent facility that could safely hold such waste until it can be properly disposed.
Courtesy The M.e.t.
"What I would like to see is a facility built somewhere in Tulsa. I don't care where," Patton said at a council committee meeting. Asked if such a facility might be placed in an existing building, Patton agreed that was also a possibility.
"We need a permanent facility. We need a chance for the citizens to do this every week of the year, every weekend, in the summertime when the movers won't touch" such waste, Patton told the group.
He cited other cities in the region and how they handle household hazardous waste.
In Oklahoma City, a permanent collection site was built in 2003 at a cost of $2.3 million.
"Last year, we collected 630,000 pounds" of hazardous materials, said Raymond Melton, Oklahoma City's environmental protection manager.
Having a permanent facility has boosted the amount of such materials collected, Melton said. Before 2003, Oklahoma City relied on two semi-annual collection events. Melton estimated that about 150,000 pounds of hazardous waste was collected yearly in those two events.
Now, "people can come out five days a week instead of twice a year," Melton said, adding that the city program includes publicity efforts to make sure citizens know where to take their hazardous materials.
Melton said required stormwater environmental permits influenced Oklahoma City to collect household hazardous waste in the first place. Patton said a similar permit requires drives Tulsa efforts. Such environmental permit requirements came without any federal funding, so Oklahoma City water customers pay a fee every month that pays for a variety of stormwater-related projects.
This fee, which Melton said was a bit more than $5 monthly, also covers the approximately $1 million yearly operating budget for the household hazardous waste collection site, he said.
There are other potential ways to collect household hazardous waste. A group of researchers recently described how stores could play a greater role in helping communities keep hazardous waste from landfills or what's known as waste-to-energy facilities that burn trash (the Tulsa area has both).
"A properly designed, mandatory retail take-back program can significantly improve user convenience compared to centralized or periodic, voluntary special collection programs," the researchers wrote in an article published this year in the Journal of Environmental Management.
The best system depends on the goal, said Travis Wagner, one of the authors of the article along with Patti Toews and Rachel Bouvier.
"If the objective was to make it as convenient for people as possible and to collect as much waste, then having a permanent collection facility supplemented by retail stores collecting certain waste -- that's by far the most convenient," said Wagner, an associate professor of environmental science and policy at the University of Southern Maine.
But while he said some big-box retailers have voluntary takebacks for some items, mandatory programs generally are "very unpopular with the merchants and retail establishments." Patton said Lowe's and Home Depot take back fluorescent bulbs.
Wagner explained the problems caused by throwing away household hazardous waste with regular garbage. One problem is mercury, which can be found in old thermostats, thermometers and fluorescent lighting, he said.
Mercury, a highly toxic element, can contaminate "up the food chain," leading to unsafe levels in fish, for example, Wagner said.
Trash trucks "always, constantly compress the waste," Wagner said. With florescent lamps, "inevitably, you have a large percentage that break." This leads to mercury spreading onto other trash or evaporating into the air. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, precipitation can then cause the mercury to be deposited into water supplies.
About 2,500 households participated at the most recent collection event in Tulsa, according to preliminary statistics from the environmental trust. The numbers fluctuate from year to year, but that number was substantially higher than the April event a year earlier, when about 1,400 households participated.
In an interview, Patton said it costs about $350,000 for both collection events, with money collected from local governments to cover expenses and allow people to dispose items free of charge.
"As proud as I am of the event, I realize we're doing it wrong," Patton said. He described how the costs accrue when half-full barrels of material require shipping, noting the potential for increased efficiency if such waste was able to be stored in a secure facility. "We could drop our price per car down to half the price. It's so expensive to do an event-based program," he said.
Patton made his request during a committee reviewing infrastructure needs of the city. The committee met with all city departments and others in anticipation of a major ballot proposal. The city is expected to ask voters to renew what's known as the "third-penny" sales tax.
The tax funds the city's capital project needs, and no final decisions have been made by the city council on what to include in such a package or even when to bring it up for voter consideration.
Patton said those wishing to dispose of household hazardous waste can bring items to the Stericycle private hazardous waste collection facility, located at 2120 Southwest Blvd., where a worker said a $30 fee per grocery bag is charged for taking household hazardous waste.
"Every gallon we collect is a victory. We have to give the citizens the chance to do the right thing," Patton said.
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