Comparison of household hazardous waste collection programs

Jim Quinn, Hazardous Waste Program Manager, Metro Solid Waste and Recycling Department, Portland, Oregon; Gwen Vernon, Senior Associate, and Christy Shelton, Senior Associate, Cascadia Consulting Group, Inc., Seattle, Washington

In the mid-1980s, a few state and local government agencies began collecting household hazardous waste (HHW), unwanted products that are potentially hazardous to human health or the environment if disposed of improperly. Today, there are several thousand such collection programs around the country.

  One of two permanent HHW collection facilities operated by Metro

Metro, a regional government in the Portland, Oregon area, has operated a permanent HHW collection program since 1992. Metro's program is one of the largest in the country in terms of customers served and provides a high level of service to residents.

In order to evaluate the cost and efficiency of its HHW program, in 2005 Metro commissioned Seattle-based Cascadia Consulting Group to conduct a nationwide survey of representative HHW programs.

Cascadia's project team performed a comparative analysis by conducting an online and telephone survey of HHW programs in 25 jurisdictions across the United States. The programs selected included several well-established programs in large metropolitan areas, as well as programs in medium-sized and smaller communities.

The survey collected program data from 2004 and developed comparisons with Metro's HHW program on the following topics:

  • Program demographics and characteristics, including population served, participants, HHW facilities, mobile collection events, and other HHW services;

  • Program facilities and services, including fixed facilities, mobile events, door-to-door collection, and services provided to Conditionally Exempt Generators (CEGs);

  • HHW materials, staff responsibilities, and safety measures, including types of materials collected and responsibilities for waste handling activities;

  • Program costs, including administration, management, processing, packaging, transportation, disposal, supplies, education, promotion, and maintenance; and

  • In-house and contractor-operated programs, including respondent opinions on the benefits and drawbacks of these program types as well as cost comparisons between the two operator types.

Collecting comparable data from every program proved to be a challenge. While many programs use similar methods to collect and process waste, the details of waste categorization and financial tracking tend to vary from program to program. By conducting detailed follow-up interviews with each program representative, the consultants were able to translate much of the data into equivalent categories and units.

Key results from the study include the following findings:

  • The 25 programs reviewed in the study offered HHW services to a median population of 600,000 residents, or about 241,000 households. They served a median of 16,400 customers in 2004, or 7% of households. In comparison, Metro's service area contains more than 550,000 households. The program served nearly 53,000 customers, or 10% of households, in 2004.

  • Annual HHW collection ranged from about 213,000 pounds to nearly 9 million pounds, with a median level of 1.4 million pounds total and 75 pounds per participant. Metro collected 78 pounds of HHW per participant, for a total of nearly 4.1 million pounds of waste in 2004.

  • All but one program offered HHW collection at fixed facilities. The median number of fixed facilities is two, operating 250 days per year and serving 79 participants per day. Metro has two HHW facilities that typically operate 312 days per year and serve 137 customers per day.

  • More than two-thirds of HHW programs (18 of 25) offer mobile collection events, with a median of 17 operation days per year and 161 participants per day, among those programs offering mobile collection. Metro held mobile events for 60 days and served nearly the same number of daily customers.

  • The typical program accepts 13 of 18 major HHW categories, plus auto wastes and latex paint. Metro accepts all but one HHW category (electronic waste), including highly hazardous materials such as radioactive waste and ammunition/explosives—a greater variety of waste types (17) than any other program interviewed.

  • Annual costs among the 25 programs ranged from about $120,000 to nearly $5.5 million in 2004. Median costs were $55 per participant served and $0.67 per pound of HHW collected. Metro's program cost nearly $3.5 million in 2004, for an average of $66 per participant and $0.85 per pound.

Metro hazardous waste technician consolidating flammable and combustible liquids

Table 1 summarizes key results for all programs, including medians and ranges of values. The table also divides HHW programs between those that are primarily operated by in-house staff or contractors. Few programs are entirely operated by in-house staff or by contractors. The consultant examined the distribution of program costs and activities to classify programs as primarily in-house or contractor-operated. Using these categories, the study analyzed responses from 10 contractor-operated programs and 15 in-house programs, including Metro's HHW program.

A significant difference was noted in the costs of contractor-operated programs vs. in-house programs. One explanation provided is that in-house programs may not report all labor and other overhead costs. Also included in the report are respondents' opinions on the benefits of in-house vs. contractor-operated programs.

  Bulk HHW awaits transport for disposal/recycling

Figure 1 illustrates how Metro compares with the other 24 programs reviewed for such measures as service area population, participants served, HHW pounds collected, cost per participant, operation days, and HHW waste types accepted. The large red circle indicates program measures for Metro, and the small gray diamonds represent the other programs included in the study.

In communicating the results of the study to agency managers and elected officials, Metro staff found the most useful data to be cost-per-pound. This measure shows the overall cost to manage each pound of waste handled by a program. While this measure does give an indication of overall program efficiency, it is important to take into account differences in the composition of waste handled, convenience of the service offered, and other factors.

In comparing Metro's program to others, the consultant concluded that Metro's household hazardous waste program offers more comprehensive services than other programs in terms of types and amounts of wastes collected, numbers and types of customers served, and availability of services. Metro handles more types of HHW, including highly hazardous content such as radioactive and explosive materials, than most other programs. In turn, Metro collects relatively fewer automotive wastes, which are handled at relatively low cost in comparison to more hazardous materials. Programs with costs lower than Metro's generally accept a higher proportion of less expensive wastes and provide lower levels of service in terms of HHW materials accepted, amounts collected, and availability of services.

This detailed analysis and comparison of selected HHW programs around the country may prove useful for other agencies wishing to benchmark their HHW operations. Those interested in receiving a copy of the final report in PDF format may contact Jim Quinn at (503) 797-1662 or

Jim Quinn can be reached at (503) 797-1662 or; Gwen Vernon can be reached at (206) 343-9759 or; and Christy Shelton can be reached at (206) 343-9759 or