Chapter 1


These guidelines form part of the FAO Pesticide Disposal Series. They give guidance and advice on what to do with the small quantities of unwanted, unusable and obsolete pesticides that are often found on farms, in homes and in many other situations.

At present, end users are often expected to deal with potentially hazardous pesticide-related waste and empty containers by themselves. The guidelines aim at putting this responsibility into the more capable and better-resourced hands of national and local authorities. Guidance is therefore addressed principally to governments, local authorities, extension services and pesticide suppliers and distributors, although pesticide users are also advised about what to do and warned against which actions to avoid.

One of the guidelines’ main objectives is to stop the current practice of advising pesticide users to burn or bury empty pesticide containers and bury, or send to landfill, other pesticide-related wastes.

None of the actions recommended in this publication present any risk to users. The main focuses are on preventing the accumulation of unusable pesticides at user level and removing waste where it exists. No technical information is given on exactly how to dispose of pesticides and containers because this is a risky operation involving dangerous chemicals and many readers will not be sufficiently trained or appropriately equipped to carry it out.

Material is presented in simple images which can be adapted to suit the various needs of local communities and reproduced for widespread distribution.

What are pesticides?

The International code of conduct on the distribution and use of pesticides1 defines pesticides as: "Any substance or mixture of substances intended for preventing, destroying or controlling any pest, including vectors of human and animal disease, unwanted species of plants or animals causing harm during, or otherwise interfering with, the production, processing, storage, transport, or marketing of food, agricultural commodities, wood and wood products or animal foodstuffs, or which may be administered to animals for the control of insects, arachnids or other pests in or on their bodies. The term includes substances intended for use as a plant growth regulator, defoliant, desiccant, or agent for thinning fruit or preventing the premature fall of fruit, and substances applied to crops either before or after harvest to protect the commodity from deterioration during storage and transport."

The problem

All pesticides are toxic to some or all living organisms. They are designed to prevent, destroy or control specific plants or animals that threaten crops or other useful resources. However, if beneficial insects or crops are exposed to pesticides they too may be destroyed, and farm animals, wildlife or people may become ill or die after exposure to even very small quantities of pesticide.

Over the past 40 years, the worldwide production and use of pesticides have increased. In 1996, the global pesticide market was valued at US$30 560 million.2 Growth in pesticide sales has slowed in industrialized countries, but it continues to grow rapidly in developing countries and dependence on pesticides is also increasing in these regions.

As reliance on pesticides increases, so do the problems of hazardous pesticide wastes. How can used containers, contaminated materials, deteriorated or unusable chemicals and excess pesticide supplies be disposed of safely?

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that, worldwide, exposure to pesticides causes an annual 20 000 deaths and at least 3 million cases of acute poisoning.3 Other estimates suggest that the annual figure for pesticide poisonings is as high as 25 million in developing countries alone.4 Many deaths and cases of poisoning are caused by mishandling of pesticide wastes and containers; the common practice of reusing pesticide containers to store food and water is an example of this. Pesticides that are carelessly disposed of can contaminate the air, water and land, and poison people, livestock, fish and wildlife.

Size of the problem

Commercial synthetic chemical pesticides are traded in every country and reach even the remotest regions. Wherever pesticides are used, unusable or unwanted pesticides and empty pesticide containers have to be managed and disposed of safely.

A wide variety of media (pictograms, posters, radio programmes and training of extension services and farmers) have been used to promote the safe storage, transportation and use of pesticides. The success of such efforts varies, but their focus is on the safe use of pesticides, while relatively little has been done to promote the safe management of pesticide-related waste materials.

Very few local or national authorities, pesticide suppliers or other organizations provide adequate support to pesticide end users. Advice is sometimes given on product labels or through regulations or guidelines, but this advice rarely reaches pesticide end users and, even when it does, it tends to be inappropriate and difficult to follow.

People often reuse empty plastic or metal pesticide containers as storage for fuel or even food and water, even though it is usually impossible to remove all traces of chemicals from these containers. Old products, unlabelled containers and leaking packages are often kept in misguided efforts to avoid waste or because people do not understand the hazards they pose.

Other dangers arise when unwanted pesticides and containers are disposed of inappropriately. For example, many pesticide suppliers and national authorities recommend the burying or burning of waste pesticides and empty containers. However, buried chemical waste can contaminate soil and leach into surface or groundwater, while burning pesticides and containers release highly toxic fumes (see Inappropriate disposal practices, p. 13).

The solutions

Pesticide regulators, advisers, distributors and end users urgently need clear advice on how to minimize the accumulation of pesticide-related waste and how best to deal with any waste that is generated. At present, guidance is often unclear, wrong or, in too many cases, completely lacking. Advice should focus, in particular, on ways in which pesticide end users can safely dispose of empty pesticide containers and unwanted or obsolete pesticides. The main aim of these guidelines is to indicate best practices and responsibilities.

The safe management and disposal of pesticide-related waste should be provided and coordinated by regulatory authorities, pesticide distributors and suppliers. Other organizations that support and advise pesticide users, such as extension and health promotion services, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), agricultural colleges and schools, also have important roles to play.

Governments and their agencies, including ministries of agriculture, health, environment and education, are responsible for regulating the manufacture, import, distribution and use of pesticides. These responsibilities should be extended to include the management of pesticide-related waste products, including empty containers, which are often overlooked.

Pesticide suppliers should ensure that effective product stewardship systems are in place. Stewardship should cover all stages of pesticide production, distribution and use, including the management of waste. Local distributors of pesticides should be actively involved in product stewardship and should help to provide safe solutions to the problems of pesticide-related waste and empty containers.

NGOs and farmers’ organizations are invaluable channels for information and advice in communities that are poorly serviced by official bodies. They can help to implement the recommendations made in these guidelines, although they still need institutional support for their activities and cannot be expected to act entirely voluntarily.

Pesticide end users also have important roles to play in minimizing the generation of pesticide-related waste and managing what waste there is in a responsible manner, in keeping with the best practices that are available.

The roles of the various bodies and individuals involved in the management of pesticide-related waste are described in greater detail in Solution options on p. 5.


1 FAO. 1990.

2 Agrow. 1997. Agrow’s Top Twenty Five. DS 141. UK, PJB Publications.

3 WHO. 1990a.

4 Jeyaratnam, J. 1990. Acute pesticide poisoning: a major problem. World Health Statistics Quarterly, 5(43): 139-144.