The world is changing the way it looks at waste. For example, China stopped importing waste from other countries. Europe is expanding its understanding of the Circular Economy to enhance its competitiveness and resource efficiency. The U.S. has introduced extended producer responsibility (EPR) legislation and packaging bills at both the State and Federal levels that would require packaging to have post-consumer recycled content beyond what is available and shift the burden and cost of packaging disposal onto industry.
These changes are often accompanied by a “plastic is the enemy” mentality. However, it’s an opportunity for industry to assess its materials and packaging in order to ensure long-term sustainability, and the aerosol industry must follow suit. Conversations in the aerosol industry have focused on how to get consumers to recycle their empty aerosol products. While this is a worthy conversation, it’s only one part of the recycling infrastructure. It’s also necessary to ask, what happens to an aerosol product once it leaves the consumer’s hand?
It’s assumed that when a consumer puts an empty aerosol product in the recycling bin, it makes its way through the recycling stream and ends up in new material. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.
There are two very important steps between an aerosol product leaving the consumer’s hand and arriving at a recycling facility: collection and sorting.
Collection is designed to gather as much potentially recyclable material as possible. However, this is not always an option since some communities don’t have recycling programs. Also, beyond basic access, collection rules differ between municipalities, which can lead to consumer confusion. One town might allow all recyclables to be in the same bin, while another town requires glass and paper to be separated.
Sorting-often done at a materials recovery facility (MRF)-is designed to segment large amounts of material as quickly and efficiently as possible into the various recycling streams and weed out non-recyclable material. During the sorting process, size matters. Small aerosol products can “fall through the cracks” and end up in a landfill rather than recycled.
After being sorted, the various materials are commodities that can be sold in the open market to companies that actually process and recycle the materials. Table 1 shows how valuable aluminum and steel are in the recycling stream compared to other materials. However, even though there’s money to be made from aluminum and steel, not every recycling program will accept aerosol containers 1.
The recycling market is incredibly volatile, making it challenging for municipalities, recyclers and MRFs to make investments in the recycling infrastructure. Materials that have value in the marketplace and are easy to process in the current recycling infrastructure are the most sought after.
One of the concerns that MRFs and recyclers have with aerosol containers is whether or not the container was actually empty when it entered the recycling stream. Full or partially-full aerosol products have been blamed for fires during the bailing process.
There is also the potential of a molten metal splash during the melting process 3. Recyclers are supposed to protect their employees from such incidences, but not accepting aerosol products in the recycling system is not an appropriate way to handle this risk. There are likely market opportunities for companies that can process full or partially-full aerosol containers so the valuable metal can enter the recycling stream.
After many years of hard work, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently finalized a rule to add all aerosol products to the universal waste program 4. However, with so many concerns about recycling empty aerosol products, there’s no guarantee recycling facilities will make the investment to handle full or partially-full aerosol products without an external driver.
Industries are beginning to focus more on how consumers dispose of different products and devote resources into making sure that their packaging is not only recyclable, but can be recycled within our current recycling infrastructure. This is a complex issue, but a great opportunity for the industry to come together and find solutions so that the aerosol delivery form remains a sustainable choice for consumers and workers who depend on these products to enhance their daily lives.
Government and society are calling for less waste and more efficiency. Will the aerosol industry be able to innovate and educate so that the aerosol package can be seen as a valuable delivery form that must be a part of our future, or will other delivery forms that reduce environmental impacts and are seen as more easily recyclable take their place?
My fear is that if recyclers continue to not accept aerosol products, they’ll never be seen as sustainable. If you would like to discuss the recycling of aerosol products, please contact me at [email protected]
1 Sustainable Packaging Coalition® 2015-16 Centralized Study on Availability of Recycling for Aerosol Containers
2 National average index pricing from recyclingmarkets.net from November 2019 pricing
3 Any sealed container, such as an aerosol container, will have pressure buildup when exposed to the temperatures required to melt aluminum and steel, causing bursts when the container opens-the resulting burst can cause molten metal to pop at the surface, potentially causing a hazard to employees.
4 For more information, click here