Aerosol cans account for nearly half of the materials in the US retail sector covered by the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. ‘Re-harvesting them can be undertaken in an environmentally protective manner,’ says Scott Fulton, president of the Environmental Law Institute (ELI) which has published a report ‘Considering the Fate of Consumer Aerosol Cans’.
Three-quarters of aerosol containers are made of steel, the rest from aluminium, and ELI calculates that the estimated 3.5 billion steel cans are produced from around 437 500 tons of raw material. If expressed in current prices for recycled steel, this tonnage would have a market value of US$ 131 million. Approximately 30% of this metal is recycled and only 0.25% remains in the recycle stream after five cycles.
Can recycling access
More than 60% of the US population is believed to have access to aerosol can recycling. Roughly 52% of these such schemes accept aluminium cans and 51% accept steel cans. Another 20% of the population has only a drop-off option.
Although most Americans do have access to these recycling programmes, ELI maintains there is not enough information available to determine how many aerosol cans enter the recycling stream. Besides, not all household recycling programmes accept aerosol cans: many require householders to dispose of them in hazardous waste collection locations or at particular times.
In California, for example, empty cans may be recycled through kerbside pick-up schemes, while full or partially-full containers must be disposed of at local household hazardous waste collection sites.
‘A smart reform’
According to Fulton, an important question to ask in the near future is whether or not the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act should be revised to focus more on resource conservation and recovery. He highlights the importance of minimising waste generation, boosting reuse and recycling, as well as the recapture of materials.
‘If material is treated as hazardous waste, its fate is certain – the vast majority is incinerated,’ he points out. Apart from the ‘enormous’ cost of this approach, Fulton calls this practice a ‘sustainability tragedy’. Instead of burning materials labelled “hazardous waste”, he advocates finding a better path for waste streams such as aerosols, adding: ‘To me, that sounds like a smart reform, anchored by the sustainability ideal.’
New label: universal waste
On a positive note, the US Environmental Protection Agency recently proposed a rule to classify at least some aerosols as “universal waste.” This rule, for which consultation closed on May 15, would allow discarded but intact cans to be stored for longer periods and sent to a wider array of destination facilities for disposal or recycling.
Looking at the matter from a retailers’ point of view, ELI notes that consumers expectations are for the sector to move ‘in fairly high-profile ways’ to respond to green initiatives as well as reputational risks.