Question: I've saved 10 to 15 cans of paint that still have some paint remaining in them for touch-up jobs around the house. Can you tell me where, or how, I should dispose of them? I've called many local disposal agencies and no one seems to have a good suggestion. Can you help?--R.L.
Answer: This is a trickier question than it appears on the surface, because it is very definitely against state law to knowingly dispose of any sort of hazardous waste at any unauthorized facility. And paint, in most instances, falls in the hazardous category, and the prohibition clearly covers throwing it out with the rest of your trash for city pickup.
But wouldn't you know? There's a glitch in the law. According to Jim McNally, a senior hazardous-material specialist with the Los Angeles office of the California Department of Health Service, the law exempts partially emptied paint containers of one gallon or less.
The law's obvious target was the commercial producer of hazardous material, and the exemption for most homeowners leaves McNally and other state and local officials who are concerned with ecological problems pretty unhappy.
"It's really a serious problem," Steve Tekosky of the Los Angeles City Attorney's Office says. "We had an instance where a sanitation worker picked up a plastic trash bag at the curb, something inside exploded, and the liquid--whatever it was--penetrated the bag. He almost lost an eye when it squirted out on his face. It's not uncommon at all to have explosions like that taking place in trash trucks."
But confusion about the law is widespread even among commercial firms that conscientiously try to adhere to it.
"We had a local distiller," Tekosky adds, "who produced a huge vat of vodka that turned out to be cloudy. There was nothing wrong with it--nothing toxic--it was perfectly all right as far as taste was concerned. But you simply can't sell cloudy vodka, and so, never considering that there was anything hazardous about it, they had it hauled out and dumped in a standard landfill.
"They got slapped with a fine because they hadn't taken into consideration the fact that the definition of 'hazardous' includes a flash point--at which the waste could burst into flame--and the alcoholic content of the vodka clearly exceeded the permissible flash point."
Bob Garver, director of marketing for Dunn-Edwards Corp., the large Los Angeles paint manufacturer, said as the original law about hazardous material was first interpreted, "it not only made it unlawful for a homeowner to throw away paint but, like us, the removal had to be done through a licensed, commercial hauler of hazardous material. And I hardly think one of them would come out to a person's home to pick up a dozen cans of leftover paint."
Even though the wording was subsequently changed so the individual could take such material to a hazardous-material landfill, attorney Tekosky adds, this was hardly a major breakthrough.
As the Department of Health's McNally elaborates: "The closest hazardous-waste landfill to Los Angeles is near Casmalia, and that's at the extreme west end of Santa Barbara County. The other one is in Kings County, north of Kern County. Not only would the people at the landfill think you were nuts to drive up there to get rid of a few cans of paint, but you'd also create more air pollution in the process than the solid waste you were getting rid of."
(The principal difference between a hazardous-material landfill and non-hazardous-material landfill, McNally adds, is not in the landfill itself, but in the pre-treatment--or absence of pre-treatment--of the waste going into it. Hazardous liquids, for instance, are held in lined ponds until the sun and air exposure have sharply reduced the toxicity of the waste. Solids are physically or chemically pre-treated in order to render them as innocuous as possible.)
Ultimately, all hands feel, the solution to hazardous household waste--which certainly isn't confined to paint and paint thinners but includes insecticides, pesticides, bleaches, household poisons, glues and the like--is through cooperative community effort.
"Orange County," McNally says, "has a model collection program for hazardous waste. So does San Bernardino County, and several individual cities."
In Santa Monica, according to Deputy City Attorney Ed Manning, the collection program--recycling, actually--is confined so far to usable latex and oil-base paint, either interior or exterior. The collection station, at 2500 Michigan Ave., where such drop-offs can be made, is open Monday through Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
"Nonprofit organizations, for instance," Manning says, "may need some interior paint for one of their facilities, aren't too fussy about color, and so they can come in and pick up what they need."
"Eventually," Manning continues, "we want to expand the program to all household toxic waste, not just paint."
But back to your question: What does a Los Angeles County resident with leftover paint do with the stuff?
Waste-material specialist McNally sighs in frustration: "I hardly know what to suggest . . . try to use it up as much as possible, I guess, and then hold it until Los Angeles County gets around to putting some sort of hazardous-waste material collection program into place."
Which, as a solution, he is fast to admit, is just a hair more practical than selling your home in order to stick the new owner with the problem.