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.