Hazardous-waste drop-offs surge at SWACO site during pandemic
The procession of vehicles into the hazardous-waste drop-off center north of downtown Columbus is similar to the daily parade of garbage trucks at the Solid Waste Authority of Central Ohio's landfill in southwestern Franklin County.
Only at this site, the "garbage" includes household chemicals, paints, fertilizers, cleaners, electronics, batteries and unknown liquids -- some of them lethal -- salvaged for reuse instead of being buried for eternity in the SWACO landfill off London-Groveport Road in Jackson Township, just west of Interstate 71.
"It's a win-win for the environment. You're preventing these materials from getting into a landfill and diverting it into something useful," said Andrew Booker, program manager for SWACO, which pays a contractor $400,000 to $500,000 annually to operate its household hazardous-waste drop-off center, 45 E. Eighth Ave. in Columbus' Milo-Grogan neighborhood.
The center is Franklin County's only standalone drop-off site for potentially dangerous household materials.
With more people inspired to clean up their homes and garages because they're spending more time there during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, the drop-off center has become a whirlwind of activity.
Bottles of lighter fluid, mercury thermometers, decades-old pesticides, paints and poisons are among the thousands of containers dropped off monthly.
"(They are) the things that typically end up being stored in your garages and basements," Booker said.
Gerry Ioannides, 76, is a retired Ohio Environmental Protection Agency chemist who oversees the operation. He's also the social conscience behind the work.
"We leave a legacy for our children that our environment is better. It's a lot less expensive to treat the material (now) than to dispose of it in a landfill and then have to dig it out to redispose of it and retreat it," Ioannides said.
"We learned our lesson," he said of landfills, which used to be "just a hole in the ground where you dumped everything. It cost billions of dollars to clean them all up."
Many of those utilizing the drop-off service know that.
Chris Heiberger drove from Columbus' Hilltop neighborhood to the facility, where an employee greeted him out front.
Heiberger said he had spent a day cleaning "years and years from my garage. Cans of paint that I probably bought 20 years ago. I didn't want to dump it in my trash can."
Water-based or latex paints require a $1 fee per can because there are extra steps involved in disposing of that nonrecyclable product. Large console televisions also require a $20 fee. Heiberger spent $40 and said he was happy to do so.
"This place is designed to deal with it," he said.
Most Franklin County residents are charged nothing because SWACO funds the disposals under a contract with Environmental Enterprises Inc.
A $50 flat fee is charged to residents of other counties to dispose of their household waste.
Operating costs vary, depending on quantity and type of material processed by Environmental Enterprises, which has similar programs in five other Midwest states.
"If you don't get paid by the (waste) district, you have to get paid by the individual dropping it off. And people don't like to do that," said Dan McCabe, president of Environmental Enterprises.
He estimates that 80% of items are reusable, either as fuel or in new products.
Carts laden with cast-off chemicals are wheeled into a warehouse. Labels are checked before containers are tossed into drums labeled pesticides, acids, alkalines and oxidizers, among others.
Ioannides said he knows well the dangers of mixing them.
"If you mix flammables with an oxidizer, you're going to have a bomb going off," he said.
A few years ago, a large vat of lithium-ion batteries began to smoke before being hauled to the parking lot and separated.
Now battery terminals are wrapped individually, even button cells, to prevent activation.
A near-crisis ended with smiles early in Ioannides' work there when a bottle marked "nitroglycerin" was found among others.
It was carefully taken outside and the Columbus Division of Fire bomb squad called. The contents were determined to be a benign, clear liquid, Ioannides recalled.
"For the most part, we're dealing with common household items you'll get at the grocery," said Steven Frohm, manager of the facility.
A worker closely pondered a bottle labeled "Deer and Rabbit Repellent," eventually tossing it into the household-cleaners bin.
For unmarked liquids, Ioannides uses litmus paper and other tests to determine acidity and other chemical properties.
Mercury is among the worst offenders at a landfill, where fluorescent bulbs often end up leaching into the mountain of debris.
At the drop-off center, fluorescent tubes are stacked carefully, along with old thermometers and other equipment.
Those items are taken to Environmental Enterprises' plant in Cincinnati for processing. The same goes for old TV picture tubes, which might contain up to 10 pounds of lead, Ioannides said.
People are grateful, Ioannides said: "99% of them will say, 'Thank God you guys are here.' "
The drop-off center is open from noon to 6 p.m. Wednesdays and Fridays and from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursdays. It does not accept firearms, munitions, appliances, asbestos, pharmaceuticals, medical waste, spray-foam-insulation cylinders, tires or regular household trash.
For more information, call 614-871-5100 or go to swaco.org.