Porter County residents have had the ability to recycle their old smoke detectors over the last year, thanks to a program we launched July 1, 2018.
The program is the first of its kind in Northwest Indiana and one of only a couple offered throughout the state. Since the program’s inception, the solid waste district collected and recycled 346 devices.
“I would call that a successful first year,” said Therese Haller, executive director of Porter County Recycling. “That’s a lot of material that for once was properly managed, preventing any potential negative effects to humans or the environment.”
Smoke detectors pose a challenge for disposal, because many use small amounts of radioactive material, americium-241, to detect smoke.
The district sends the devices it collects to Curie Environmental Services, where the americium-241 is segregated and sent to a special waste fill. The hard plastic cases and remaining metals are also recycled and diverted from the solid waste stream. The cost for the first year of the program was $2,967.
“We hope the program continues to grow, as more people learn about it and take advantage of it,” Haller said.
The Porter County Fire Association recommends checking all smoke detectors every six months to ensure they are in working order. They also recommend replacing smoke detectors every 10 years.
Before last July, there was no official solution to properly disposing of old smoke detectors in Porter County.
“Over the years, we’ve answered calls from residents asking where they can responsibly dispose of their old smoke detectors,” she said. “Our answers have ranged from ‘throw them in your trash’ to ‘send them back to the manufacturers.’ It was a gray area. We had no definite solutions.”
While researching recycling opportunities, Haller asked manufacturers how they recycled smoke detectors that were returned by customers. She said many of her inquiries went unanswered, and others never provided her with requested information.
According to the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission website, smoke detectors are very safe; “A 2001 NRC study found people with two of these units in their homes receive less than 0.002 millirems of radiation dose each year. That dose can be compared to the background radiation that people receive from space and the earth.”
“The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says smoke detectors do not pose a health threat as long as they are not tampered with and used as directed,” Haller said. “However, the state of the detectors is compromised when placed in our waste stream because the chances they will be crushed during collection, transport and burial are great.”
Compaction is widely used in the waste industry to reduce the size of trash and create space for more. Garbage trucks, for example, crush waste to maximize hauling space while collecting through neighborhoods; semi-trucks at transfer stations are packed with trash destined for a landfill; and the trash dumped in landfills is compacted to conserve valuable airspace and to extend the landfills’ life spans.
Porter County residents can drop off their expired smoke detectors at these locations. Residents can also bring their smoke detectors to any of the remaining household hazardous waste collection events in Porter County.
Carbon monoxide detectors do not contain radioactivity and can be recycled in Porter County Recycling’s regular electronics recycling program.