What do I do with old cleaning products?

Be careful what you send down the drain

How to dispose of cleaning products

As spring cleaning commences, and you wipe away the dust from the seemingly never-ending winter, you may notice you’ve got extra sprays and wipes you longer need. While it’s tempting to throw it all in the bin, it’s crucial to dispose of cleaning products responsibly to reduce the impact on surrounding ecosystems—and your neighbors.

Many popular formulas contain ingredients that can be toxic, corrosive, or flammable. Both within the home and after disposal, these ingredients can endanger the health of people and our planet. But you can take steps to safely toss the items that keep your home sparkling and squeaky clean.

Environmental impact of cleaning products

Cleaning products we use in our daily lives often incorporate ingredients with adverse environmental impacts. They make their way to flora, fauna, and potentially back to our own sinks when we toss our sprays, powders, and wipes into our household waste and drain liquids down the toilet or sink. Despite these findings, manufacturers can include nearly any substance in their product.

When throwing cleaning products into the trash, you’re sending dangerous substances into surrounding ecosystems the “slow way,” since they can make their way into groundwater from landfills, says Kristin Fitzgerald, a specialist at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Land and Emergency Management.

Although the liquid that pools up in landfills typically gets sent to wastewater treatment plants, these facilities aren’t designed to filter out hazardous chemicals.1 That means toxic ingredients like anomia can bypass them, travel into surrounding bodies of water, and potentially make their way into local drinking sources. 

Meanwhile, dumping cleaning products down the toilet or sink sends them into the environment the “fast way,” Fitzgerald explains, and runs into the same issue as landfill runoff at wastewater treatment plants. “Ultimately, we don’t want them to go the slow way or the fast way into our surface waters,” she says.

“If you bring them to your hazardous waste collection, they know how to manage them. They have chemists, they keep [items] segregated and then ultimately destroy them in a more environmentally protective manner than if you were to put them in your trash.”

Kristin Fitzgerald, U.S. EPA

Once they’re in the wild, these products introduce potentially dangerous substances. For example, lots of cleaners include the compound sodium lauryl sulfate because it works well to remove oily substances. But research has found that it can deform and even kill aquatic life.2 Ammonia, meanwhile, can be found in many cleaning products that leak out of landfills, creating oxygen “dead” zones in water sources that may kill animals.3

In an attempt to work around these issues, some companies sell water-soluble products. They claim these contain fewer chemicals that can pollute soil or groundwater when disposed of correctly, since they can theoretically dissolve in water. But that’s not always the case: Laundry and dish detergent pods often incorporate a thin plastic film made of the water-soluble polymer called polyvinyl alcohol (PVA). Its components can linger in bodies of water, where they may impair oxygen flow—bringing potentially serious consequences for wildlife.4 The water-soluble preservative bronopol, found in many soaps and cleaners, can harm water-dwelling creatures and birds.5

Ultimately, you can avoid buying cleaning products with these potentially risky ingredients by finding simpler (and likely cheaper) alternatives. The EPA suggests, for example, foregoing drain cleaner and instead using a plunger or plumber’s snake, or swapping glass cleaner for vinegar or lemon juice mixed with water. You can find an easy recipe for DIY cleaner here.

Fitzgerald also recommends buying products certified by EPA’s Safer Choice program, which ensures items are made with the safest possible chemical ingredients for humans and the environment. 

How to use up cleaning products responsibly

To reduce these (literal) downstream effects, try to use up your products at home before disposing of them. If that’s not possible, you can give away items to friends or family, check if local organizations such as homeless shelters or churches nearby will accept them, or head to local Facebook groups or the Buy Nothing app

Partly used cleaning products can also be brought to your local hazardous waste collection facility, the EPA’s Fitzgerald says. You can find yours by Googling “hazardous waste disposal” with your zip code.

Disposal tips for cleaning supplies

Cleaning supplies can be dangerous—some have the potential to destroy metal and burn skin, catch fire easily, and react violently to water or air. These will include information on the label with words like “danger,” “poison,” “flammable,” or “caution.” When you no longer want these items, they’re considered hazardous waste.

Fitzgerald advises folks to bring these items to local hazardous waste collection facilities for disposal. Make sure to keep the product in its original container with the label intact and put leaking products into larger, leak-proof containers.

“If you bring them to your hazardous waste collection, they know how to manage them,” Fitzgerald says. “They have chemists, they keep [items] segregated and then ultimately destroy them in a more environmentally protective manner than if you were to put them in your trash.”

Precautions when disposing of cleaning products

  • Read labels. Make sure to read a cleaning product’s label for disposal instructions. If the instructions are unclear or you can’t find any, you can check with your local waste disposal facility for advice. It may require special handling if it contains particularly toxic ingredients (see the section on hazardous cleaning supplies for more information). 
  • Don’t mix. Avoid mixing chemicals to prevent potential injury or illness. For one, never mix bleach or any bleach-containing product with anything containing ammonia and acids, along with any other cleaners. Mixing bleach and ammonia can create toxic gases called chloramines, which can cause symptoms such as coughing, nausea and shortness of breath. Also avoid mixing hydrogen peroxide with vinegar, which can produce peracetic acid that may irritate your lungs, throat, eyes, and skin. You can find a longer list of items to never mix here.
  • Protect yourself. When working with particularly hazardous substances that are marked with words such as danger, poison, flammable, or caution, make sure you do not inhale them or get them on your skin. The label should tell you whether you need personal protective equipment, such as eye protection and gloves, when handling them.

Disposing of liquid cleaning products

You may be wondering if you can just pour liquid cleaning products down the drain, but doing so can cause lots of damage in the long run due to the impacts on the environment, such as harm to marine life and drinking water.

Pouring out cleaners that contain bleach, phosphates, ammonia, or petroleum-based chemicals can also prove harmful for households with a septic system.  “We really discourage anything from going down the drain,” Fitzgerald says. “It’s not a solution to disposal.” 

Disposing of solid and powder cleaning products

As with other hazardous wastes generated in the home, the EPA recommends that consumers bring solid and powder cleaning products to household hazardous waste collection sites for environmentally protective management. If your unused or partly full products contain any potentially dangerous substances, such as corrosive cleaning agents like bleach or ammonia, it’s particularly important to bring them to your local hazardous waste collection facility.

Recycling cleaning product containers

If you have an empty container to get rid of, you may be able to recycle it via your local curbside recycling program. Check the number on the plastic container to determine whether your municipal program accepts that type of plastic, and look out local guidelines for glass, metal, and aerosol can recycling. Many cleaning products come packaged in #2 plastic, which is recycled in most areas. But they may also come in #5, which isn’t as widely recycled around the country. “It’s very dependent on local markets,” Fitzgerald says.

You should also ask your local recycling program for instructions on recycling empty chemical containers, since the residue can harm workers who transport and process them.

Additional disposal and recycling tips

What do I do with old electronics?

Between 2010 and 2022, the amount of e-waste made per year jumped by 82%, reaching nearly 70 million tons, according to a recent United Nations report. When devices like old laptops, phones, and even cables get dumped into landfills or littered, heavy metals like lead and arsenic, along with flame retardants, can contaminate soil, water, and crops. Several states have gone so far as to ban sending any electronics to the dump. What are you supposed to do instead? Explore the best options to recycle your electronics.  

What do I do with old batteries?

Like e-waste, batteries hitting the bin can lead to serious problems. The materials that power our gadgets and gizmos can leach heavy metals into groundwater and soil after a trip to the landfill. Sometimes they can even spark water-resistant fires. The good news is that most batteries—from the single-use AAs in your remote to the rechargeable lithium power pack on your drill—can be recycled. You’ve just gotta know where to take them. Learn how to recycle your old batteries and how to find a recycler near you.

What do I do with old clothes and fabric?

Trends come and go with dizzying speed these days, and even the most sustainable shoppers aren’t immune to needing a white t-shirt refresh every now and again. It’s no wonder that textile waste adds up: The U.S. chucks around 68 pounds’ worth per person every year, according to the latest data from the EPA. Luckily, there’s plenty we can do with fabric and clothes we no longer need. Reputable donation and take-back programs are an excellent first step for items in good condition. For stuff that’s hanging on by a thread, consider upcycling it at home or, as a last resort, taking them to a recycler. Learn how to properly recycle your old clothes.  

What do I do with leftover medicine?

According to a survey run by Stericycle, nearly 40% of people say they hang on to leftover meds for future use, which means a lot of us have potentially expired scripts hiding in the back of the bathroom cabinet. Simply flushing those extra meds—as many folks do—can pose risks to people and planet. That’s why working through established take-back programs or using EPA– and DEA-recommended disposal methods is crucial. Learn how to dispose of expired or unused medicines.

  1. Where Does All the Dirty Water Go?, United States Environmental Protection Agency, Dec. 2002 ↩︎
  2. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate and its Potential Impacts on Organisms and the Environment: A Thematic Analysis, Emerging Contaminants, Mar. 2023 ↩︎
  3. Environmental and Socio-Economic Impacts of Landfills, Linnaeus ECO-TECH, Nov. 2012 ↩︎
  4. Degradation of Polyvinyl Alcohol in US Wastewater Treatment Plants and Subsequent Nationwide Emission Estimate, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, Jun. 2021 ↩︎
  5. Bronopol and Bronidox, Australian Government, Department of Health, Jan. 2022 ↩︎