The household and commercial products industry has dedicated an incredible amount of effort and resources to fostering a circular economy. One of the main focuses has been on end-of-life needs for products, which includes how to best recycle materials. It’s become almost second nature to put paper and plastic in the recycling bin, but, for most consumers, it’s not as obvious what to do with aerosol cans. Luckily, technology has made it possible to safely and efficiently recycle a lot of materials, including aerosol products. But having the technology is only one piece of the puzzle. It’s critical that other pieces, such as regulations, make it easier for aerosol products to be recycled, even when classified in the United States as a hazardous waste.
The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) governs the disposal of waste in the United States, including aerosol products. Empty aerosol products1 are recyclable; however, full or partially full aerosol products designated as waste by retailers, commercial settings and industry are classified as hazardous waste (consumers are exempt from RCRA, so household waste, including aerosol products, are not classified as hazardous waste).
RCRA manages the generation, collection, and disposal of hazardous materials. In 1995, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established the Universal Waste program to ease the regulatory burden on waste generators for specific materials. Between 1995-2018, four materials have been added2 to the Universal Waste program in order to reduce the amount of waste that goes to landfills or combustors: batteries, pesticides, mercury-containing equipment, and bulbs (lamps).
The Household & Commercial Products Association (HCPA) has consistently advocated for full or partially-full aerosol containers to be included in the Universal Waste program. In March 2018, utilizing data from HCPA’s Annual Aerosol Products Survey, the EPA proposed3 adding aerosol cans to the federal Universal Waste program. The EPA published4 their final rule, which makes it easier to handle and transport aerosol waste, on December 9, 2019, and it will take effect on February 7, 2020. The rule is expected to be particularly helpful to retailers since the EPA estimates that approximately 40 percent of the hazardous waste generated by retailers are aerosol products.
The addition of aerosol cans to the Universal Waste program is expected to benefit all waste generators and increase the recycling rate of aerosol containers. Generators5 can store aerosol waste for a year (or possibly longer depending on certain criteria), are not required to ship aerosol waste as hazardous waste (although generators must comply with the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) requirements for shipping aerosol products), and the amount of aerosol product waste generated does not count toward a hazardous waste generator’s inventory, as used to determine the size-classification of a generator.
However, states must also change their hazardous waste regulations to include aerosol products. Six states6 have already done so, accounting for almost 25 percent of the United States’ total gross domestic product (GDP)7, 8. Using the EPA’s final rule as a blueprint, states can add aerosol products to their Universal Waste programs.
Beyond federal and state regulations, it’s up to municipalities to do their part – which might be the most challenging part to all of this. Municipalities must invest in the technology that is required to recycle certain materials safely and efficiently, such as the devices that are specifically designed to puncture aerosol cans and can contain the propellant, solvent or other residue from the product so they can be disposed of properly.
Even though recycling steel and aluminum is valuable for municipalities, the burden of managing that waste may not be worth the investment. Hopefully, adding aerosol products to the Universal Waste program will increase the number of aerosol products – regardless of the potential remaining content – that can be recycled.
If you would like to further discuss the disposal or recycling of aerosol products in the United States, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.