How to dispose of old toxic cleaning supplies and personal care products

Q. Now that I’ve made the switch to natural body and hair care, as well as home cleaners, how do I dispose of what’s left of the conventional, toxic stuff? I can't just pour it down the drain, right? But if I throw it in the trash, then I am not recycling the plastic bottles. Plus, couldn’t the toxins leach into the ground water? In all the hundreds of articles I have read encouraging people to switch to greener products, I have not yet come across an answer to this problem.  Help! - Priscilla Borchardt

A. Fret not, Priscilla—most of the damage done to both your body and the environment by traditional, chemical-based products comes from cumulative and long-term use, so you should feel absolutely free to finish up that last remaining dollop of SLS-containing shampoo or squirt of bleach-y bathroom cleaner. That way, says Rebecca Sutton, environmental chemist and staff scientist for the Environmental Working Group, you’ll be able to place the empty plastic bottles in the proper recycling bin, and get full closure as you bid adieu to toxic products forever and ever. “The small exposure you’d get from finishing off the last bits of your old stuff won’t really hurt you or the environment,” says Sutton. “It’s when those little exposures add up over a whole lifetime that you should be concerned.” And yes, you’re absolutely right that pouring the old stuff down the drain is a big no-no. Even milder products like dish soap or shampoo are theoretically more damaging the more concentrated they are.

All that said, if the idea of returning to finish off your old chemical-based products is just too horrific, or if you’ve already grown far too enamored of your new, natural alternatives to set them aside for even a day, you could always give the old stuff away.  Or maybe keep the old personal care products in your gym bag, for occasional, emergency use. And when you do get them out, think of them as a happy reminder of your switch to greener choices.

- Sarah Schmidt

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How can giving the old stuff away possibly be a sustainable alternative? Not only is it hypocritical (I'm worried I'll get hurt by this, so why don't you use it), but putting toxic things back into use encourages whoever uses it to buy more of the same in the future.

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