Facts about waste management

Hazardous substances

Your rubbish contains hazardous substances that need to be handled in a special way.

The most important thing to separate is hazardous waste, i.e. waste that is toxic, carcinogenic, corrosive, harmful to reproduction, dangerous to the environment, infectious or flammable. In a regular household, this could be things like chemicals, paints, solvents, pharmaceutical products, batteries, electrical products, and pesticides.

If hazardous waste is thrown in the bin, there is a risk that the hazardous substances will end up in the environment. It is not possible for conventional incineration plants to completely clean all kinds of pollutants. Dangerous heavy metals such as lead and mercury can be spread if batteries are put in the bin. If solvents end up in garden waste, large quantities of compost may have to be discarded. It is impossible to remove pollutants or toxic substances from compost or digestate.

Leaving the hazardous waste in storage at home is not always a good idea. There is a risk that the containers will grow old and start to leak. Small children may accidentally get hold of dangerous substances – a single sip can cause serious harm. Oil residues, such as soaked rags, can self-ignite, and spray cans could explode if left in the heat. That is why it is always safest to turn in hazardous waste for collection.

Substances that can be found in rubbish

There are many substances that are harmful to people or the environment if not disposed of properly. Some examples:

  • mercury
  • solvents
  • paints
  • oil
  • chemicals

Older thermometers, some batteries, fluorescent lamps, low-energy light bulbs and some electrical products contain mercury. It is one of the most dangerous environmental toxins that exists. In humans, it can damage the central nervous system and the kidneys. One teaspoon of mercury is enough to poison a medium-sized Swedish lake. Mercury is stored in the body of both humans and animals, and can also harm unborn babies. This is one reason why pregnant women should not eat fish from lakes. There are still 50,000 Swedish lakes where mercury levels are higher than what the authorities consider acceptable.

Several other metals, such as lead and cadmium from electrical and electronic waste and batteries, also remain for a long time if they end up in the environment. They can cause kidney damage, skeletal damage, impaired learning ability, poor night vision, anaemia, and nervous system disorders.

Solvents are found in paints and varnishes, for example. They can be toxic and cause memory impairment, irritability, and cancer. They are also often flammable.

Paints not only contain solvents, but also many other substances that may be dangerous. Older paints often contain heavy metals, and modern paints may contain preservatives and nonylphenols, which take a long time to break down in nature.

Oil is the most common hazardous waste that is brought to recycling centres. Most of it is waste oil from changing engine oil in cars. It contains hazardous substances, and may also contain heavy metals, including lead. It takes a very long time for nature to break down these substances.

Chemicals, which can be found in cleaning products, lighter fluids and pesticides, can cause cancer, affect the genetic make-up and the ability of animals and humans to reproduce (have children), and more. Even small amounts can cause serious harm.

Last updated: 2023-08-17