Most people don't think much about how many potentially dangerous chemicals are in their medicine cabinets and garages until it's time to dispose of them. That's when things get complicated. Every municipality has its own rules, and some chemicals are much more dangerous than others. While products like pesticides and paint thinners contain toxic materials that require special handling, rubbing alcohol is one household chemical that you can safely dispose of on your own.
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What Is Rubbing Alcohol?
Commonly used as a disinfectant, rubbing alcohol is isopropyl alcohol that has been slightly diluted with water. How much water has been added determines the strength of the solution. The two concentrations you're most likely to see on your drug store's shelves are 70 percent rubbing alcohol (70 parts alcohol and 30 parts water) and 99 percent rubbing alcohol (99 parts alcohol and 1 part water).
The concentration of your rubbing alcohol may matter when you're using it to clean. Contrary to what you might assume, a lower concentration can actually be a more effective disinfectant because the higher water content slows evaporation and gives the alcohol time to kill bacteria. However, the concentration doesn't matter when it comes to disposal. All kinds of rubbing alcohol can be disposed of in the same ways.
Safely Disposing of Rubbing Alcohol
It's generally safe to dispose of rubbing alcohol by pouring it down a household drain. Run the water, slowly pour the alcohol into the drain, and continue running the water for a few seconds. Even if your home uses a septic system, it should be safe to pour a small amount of rubbing alcohol down a drain. Dumping gallons of alcohol into the septic tank could disrupt its bacterial balance, but the contents of one bottle shouldn't cause a major problem. Only pour rubbing alcohol into a household drain and never into the ground or any outdoor location where it might end up in a stormwater drain.
If you're disposing of large quantities of rubbing alcohol or have any questions about safe disposal of rubbing alcohol in your area, contact the municipal office that manages hazardous waste.
Using Up Rubbing Alcohol
While it's perfectly safe to dispose of rubbing alcohol in a household drain, there may be more beneficial ways to use up any excess alcohol. In addition to disinfecting, rubbing alcohol has a few other common practical applications around the home. For example, use it as a glass cleaner by mixing approximately 1 part white vinegar, 4 parts rubbing alcohol and 16 parts water in a new, clean spray bottle. (Reusing a spray bottle that has previously held some kind of liquid may introduce chemicals into your DIY glass cleaner that you don't want to use on glass surfaces.) Spritz the solution on windows or mirrors and use newspaper to get a streak-free shine.
Rubbing alcohol can also be an effective adhesive remover. To get rid of a stubborn sticker or soften a patch of hardened glue, pour a little rubbing alcohol over it or place a cotton ball soaked with rubbing alcohol over the area. Let it sit for 10 minutes or so and then buff away the adhesive with a cloth or use a rubber scraper to lift it.
Some home gardeners even use rubbing alcohol as an insecticide. Mix equal parts rubbing alcohol and water in a spray bottle, then add a squirt of dish soap. The soap acts as a surfactant, helping the alcohol solution adhere to the plant long enough for it to be effective. Spray the liquid directly onto a small section of an infested plant. Check the area after a day or two to evaluate whether the solution caused any damage to the plant itself; if not, you can treat the entire plant with your rubbing alcohol spray.
- Yale Environmental Health & Safety: Materials That May Be Disposed of Through the Sanitary Sewer System
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