Leftover household products that contain corrosive, toxic, ignitable, or reactive ingredients are considered to be household hazardous waste (HHW). Products, such as paints, cleaners, oils, batteries, and pesticides, that contain potentially hazardous ingredients require special care when you dispose of them.
EPA definition of household hazardous waste
A municipality that collects HHW will usually have a website to educate and guide the public in correctly identifying the types of household products that are likely to be hazardous. Since most HHW is in the form of leftover packaged goods — and since consumers are encouraged to keep these hazardous products in their original containers — websites like this will often feature a still life photo of bottles and cans. It’s these packaging still lifes that I want to focus on today.
The functional purpose of such photos is simply to help the public understand and identify which products are potentially hazardous. In compiling an arrangement of these packages, however, a photographer must make certain choices which invariably introduce a level of artifice and artistry to these still lifes.
Still life photography, more so than other types of photography, such as landscape or portraiture, gives the photographer more leeway in the arrangement of design elements within a composition.
… The still life photographer makes pictures rather than takes them.
from Wikipedia’s entry on Still Life Photography
The challenge for photographers of HHW is to illustrate the threat of hazardous consumer packaged goods, without succumbing to the sort of “hero” shot that product photographers generally aspire to. And what about all the package design and branding that went into these containers? Don’t these earlier design efforts naturally tend to dilute any warnings that these still lifes are meant to convey?
1. The photo above shows a colorful arrangement of hazardous products on gray shelves. Shelves make sense on several levels. Consumers obtain their (hazardous) packaged products from store shelves, eventually storing them on shelves in their home. Yet the shelves are too clean to be the real resting place of these packages.
One thing I’ve noticed is that some of the same still life photos appear on many different websites. (Alhambra, CA chamber of commerce, the Ingham County Health Department in Lancing, MI, Beaver Lake Smart in Northwest Arkansas, Copper Mountain Mesa Community Center in Joshua Tree, CA, St. Louis County in MN and many others.)
Where did this photo originate? The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. (more about that further on…)
What follows is a curated collection of HHW packaging still lifes.
2. A household hazardous waste still life on seamless white background appearing on various websites, including the Auburn Hills Development website in CA and the Chittenden Solid Waste District website in VT.
3. This still life photo on a white shelf has appeared on HHW websites (and pet-related websites) in the UK, Italy, Spain, South America and Illinois. Not sure where it originated.
4. The still life photo from the City of Lethbridge in CA shows HHW outdoors on a the edge of a (faux?) wooden folding table.
5. The Pesticides/Insecticides still life photo from the Bangor, ME website.
6. An arrangement of HHW photographed on a gray concrete floor from the Watsonville Public Works & Utilities website in CA.
7. This silhouetted photograph comes from the same place as still life photo #1: The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s Flickr Photostream. Silhouetting is another aesthetic treatment that one sees on HHW websites with some frequency. (There is also a non-silhouetted version of this photo.)
Interestingly, Minnesota has apparently decided to share their HHW packaging still life photos with other municipalities.
For use by governmental and nonprofit household hazardous waste programs. Common household products that are considered hazardous or caustic and need to be disposed of safely. Most HHW programs accept these products.