Like most manufacturers in Canada, aerosol product producers are working to minimize the environmental impacts of their products and packaging. The aerosol industry began to improve its profile when it initiated the elimination of chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) propellants in 1975. By 1989 nearly all aerosol containers, with the exception of about one per cent used for bronchial inhalers, were CFC-free.
With over 3-billion containers manufactured and sold in North America each year, (90 per cent of which are made up of steel) it’s no wonder that the aerosol industry is under pressure to divert this material from landfill and recycle it. In fact, it’s estimated that if all aerosol cans were recycled there would be enough steel to make 160,000 new cars!
Municipal pioneers in post-consumer aerosol recycling were Edmonton, Alberta (in 1993) and Quinte Region, Ontario (in 1994). Prompted by a need to reduce material going to landfill and to reduce the cost of household hazardous waste programs, both cities added empty aerosol containers to their curbside recycling programs.
“If all aerosol cans were recycled there would be enough steel to make 160,000 new cars!”
Aerosol cans are handled much like any other steel container. Generally, they make up less than 2 per cent of a steel bale. Steel mills accept cans that have been baled and densified. However, in some cases such as in Edmonton, the local steel mill requests that the cans be pre-shredded.
Breaking down barriers
One of the greatest obstacles to aerosol recycling is that many recycling coordinators mistakenly believe that aerosols should be treated as household hazardous waste. The truth is that empty aerosol containers can be treated just like any other steel food or beverage container. Findings from the Quinte program prove (for aerosol and paint containers) that the public can learn, through effective promotion, to identify and set out only empty containers. In fact, after about six months of the program, waste composition studies found that almost no full or partially full containers were being set out.
If partially or full containers end up being collected and processed, they’re usually discarded at the material recovery facility (MRF) because magnetic separators and blowers are unable to pick up containers with the additional weight of their contents.
Research conducted by the Factory Mutual Research Corporation shows that the risk associated with a full or partially full container that enters the recycling stream is comparable to the risk already faced by a MRF from combustible materials such as paper, plastic and conveyor belts.
Another barrier faced by interested jurisdictions was Ontario’s requirement for an air emissions certificate of approval. While approvals were never difficult to get they did pose an administrative burden that usually resulted in municipalities deciding against the addition of aerosol cans to existing programs.
However, in 1998 Ontario’s environment ministry exempted the C of A requirement for post-consumer empty aerosol recycling and made the addition of these containers much easier. The ministry reports that as long as a MRF has the standard requirement for ventilation, no additional capital investment is necessary.
The last major barrier that municipal recycling coordinators and politicians face is the fear that if full or partially full containers are set out they can pose a threat to people, especially children who may inadvertently release the propellants and harm themselves or others. However, municipalities may take comfort in the fact that with over 5,000 communities in North America recycling aerosol containers via curbside, no such incident has ever occurred.
In an effort to promote recycling efforts the aerosol industry formed the Canadian Aerosol Information Bureau (CAIB) which is mandated to provide technical support and in some cases financial support for start-up. CAIB’s goal is to have aerosol containers recycled in every community across the country. Corporations Supporting Recycling (CSR) also helps communities roll out aerosol recycling programs by providing promotion and education materials.
Currently about 1.4 million residents have access to aerosol recycling most of which are from Ontario. However, as curbside programs begin proliferation throughout the rest of the country, CAIB anticipates that one-third of Canadians will have access to aerosol recycling in the next five years.
For more information about starting up an aerosol recycling program, call Sarah Webb at CAIB at 416-594-3456 and see www.solidwastemag.com for a link to the Blue Box 2000 — Empty Aerosol and Paint Project report.
Clarissa Morawski is principal of CM Consulting, based in Toronto, Ontario.