When you throw out an empty spray paint can at home, it’s trash. When you throw it out at work, it’s hazardous waste.
If you didn’t realize that aerosol cans are considered hazardous waste at work, you’re not alone. Major US companies have been hit with fines for failing to properly manage of aerosol cans as required under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA).
The good news is that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recognizes aerosol cans as a commonly generated type of wastes and allows them to be managed as universal waste at the federal level (some states have more stringent requirements).
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The Problem with Aerosol Cans
We use over three billion aerosol cans each year in the United States, and they contain everything from brake cleaner to whipped cream. On the plant floor, chances are your aerosol cans aren’t filled with dessert toppings or imitation cheese. Many of the liquids inside aerosol cans are hazardous, like paints or flammable lubricants. Pesticides and chlorinated cleaning products also can be toxic.
Can contents aren’t the only issue. The propellant that forces liquids out of the cans is traditionally propane, butane, another hydrocarbon, or carbon dioxide. Even after it no longer sprays, leftover propellant presents safety and environmental challenges. The pressurized can also presents a reactivity hazard when it is exposed to heat or pressure.
Hazardous Waste Disposal vs. Aerosol Can Recycling
When it comes to aerosol cans, you have a choice: you can manage them as hazardous waste or as a universal waste. If you choose to manage them as hazardous waste, the cans need to be stored in in closed containers that are properly labeled until they are shipped as hazardous waste for disposal, adding to your facility’s hazardous waste generator status.
In states that have adopted aerosol cans as a universal waste, the cans must still be stored and labeled properly, but you have the option to puncture the cans and recycle the metal. This means that only the residual liquids that are removed from the can need to be managed as hazardous waste. For facilities that use a lot of aerosol cans, this can be a considerable cost savings!
An aerosol can recycler easily punctures the cans, allowing any residual liquids remaining to be drained while at the same time depressurizing the can and removing the reactivity hazard. Once the can has been punctured, it’s no longer solid waste OR hazardous waste if the can is recycled as scrap metal. [40 CFR 273.13]
To compare the two approaches, consider this: A standard 55-gallon drum can hold around 234 aerosol cans.* Puncturing the same 234 cans produces less than three gallons of liquid waste to manage instead of a full drum and sends over 30 pounds of scrap metal for recycling!
Aerosol recycling systems are also safe for workers to use. Improperly crushing or puncturing cans results in harmful air emissions. The two-stage filter of an aerosol recycler captures aerosolized liquids, and a carbon filtering media scrubs volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that are commonly found in propellants used to pressurize the cans.
Which Option Is Better?
Only a small percentage of companies are good candidates for managing aerosol cans through a hazardous waste disposal program. For facilities that are very large quantity hazardous waste generators, including aerosol cans as part of their comprehensive hazardous waste management program may be a good choice. For very small facilities that generate only a single drum of cans per quarter, paying for offsite disposal may be a good option.
For the majority of facilities, however, managing aerosol cans as universal waste is the best choice. Recycling allows you to minimize hazardous waste streams, lower environmental impact and save money on cost and future liability of hazardous waste disposal.
*A Hazardous Waste survey from the city of Greensboro, NC from the early 90s put the average number at 234. This data was taken from actual collections.
Start recycling your aerosol cans with the PIG Aerosol Can Recycler to cut down on your hazwaste disposal.
Jaredsays:04/11/2016 at 4:04 pm
Nobody thinks about the aerosol before throwing cans in the garbage. Aerosol is one of the major pollutants.
Karensays:04/12/2016 at 3:38 pm
That is a great point. A lot has been done, however, to minimize the pollutants in aerosol cans. For example, Chlorofluorocarbons were banned several years ago and most propellants used today are far less hazardous. In fact, for some spent aerosol cans, the main hazard is the fact that the can remains pressurized after its use.
Spent aerosol cans are often overlooked as hazardous waste at facilities because similar products are used both at home and at work. At home, it is acceptable to throw an aerosol can in the trash, so many people don’t give aerosol cans a second thought at work either. The difference is EPA governance. While EPA rules apply to facilities, the EPA does not have the authority to govern homeowners and general consumers.
To help narrow the gap between at-home and at-work disposal practices, many communities now offer “household hazardous waste days” to collect items for recycling and help prevent common hazardous materials from being landfilled. Aerosol cans are often among the items that are collected at these events.
Gregsays:09/06/2017 at 3:58 pm
Could the drum used for collecting the residuals from puncturing cans be considered a satellite accumulation area?
Brittanysays:09/30/2017 at 9:49 pm
The drum used to collect the residuals from punctured cans could be considered a satellite accumulation area if it meets the criteria for satellite accumulation.
Assuming that there is not an acutely hazardous material in the cans that are being punctured, the EPA’s satellite accumulation rule allows small and large quantity hazardous waste generators to accumulate up to 55 gallons of hazardous waste at or near its point of generation, but the following rules must be followed:
1. The container must be kept closed when wastes are not being added or removed. So, the can puncturing unit and filter would both need to be removed and the bung caps replaced after the unit is used.
2. The unit must be under the control of the operator generating the waste.
3. The container must be properly labeled.
Please let us know if you have any additional questions!
craig atwatersays:04/03/2020 at 2:32 pm
Can I use 1 drum to empty all my aerosoIs that I puncture or do I have to have a drum for each different aerosol? Are the residuals a hazardous waste and therefore a separate waste stream must be generated. ie: 1 for paints, 1 for inks, 1 for solvents, 1 for cleaners, etc.
Isabella Andersensays:04/17/2020 at 3:54 pm
Hi there! This article about mixing the contents of your aerosol cans should answer your question.
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