aerosol-recycling.jpg The opening scene of the movie American Hustle, sets in the 1970s, depicts actor Christian Bale styling an elaborate comb over. His final step is picking up an enormous aerosol can filled with hairspray and blasting the whole ‘do with a fog of mist to make sure every hair stays in place. You are less likely to find hairspray in aerosol cans these days, but the technology has not gone the way of the leisure suit quite yet. Spray-paint, cleaners, bug sprays, cooking sprays and deodorant are just a few examples of the products sold en masse in aerosol cans. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 3 billion aerosol cans are produced in the U.S. every year. Recycling an empty aerosol can may be as simple as tossing it in your curbside recycling bin. Recycling a full can will likely require a trip to your local household hazardous waste disposal facility. But, no matter the condition of your can, it is possible to recycle it.

What are aerosol cans?

Norwegian scientist Erik Rotheim received the first patent for an aerosol can in 1926. In 1939, Julian Kahn became the first American to patent the product, but he did not realize any commercial success with his product. That distinction is held by Lyle Goodhue and William Sullivan. In 1941, the duo released a product that allowed soldiers in World War II to squirt bug spray inside their tents as a means to kill mosquitoes and protect themselves against malaria. Today, aerosol cans are made of either steel or aluminum. They have a plastic spray top and a plastic lid, and may contain a small piece of metal to help mix the product when the can is shaken. Inside the can is a liquid or gas that shoots out at a high rate of speed thanks to a chemical used as a propellant. In the past, chlorofluorocarbons (also known as CFCs) were the most common propellant. When people realized CFCs were one of the primary gases destroying the ozone layer, they were banned in most countries and aerosol can manufacturers were forced to find another propellant. Today, food products use carbon dioxide or nitrous oxide as propellants, while others use propane or butane as the propellant. CFCs in very small quantities are still approved for a few uses, including asthma inhalers.

Why should I recycle aerosol cans?

You should recycle an empty aerosol can because the metal is fully recyclable and can be put back to use as new products. However, you should absolutely not recycle a can that is not empty because it can explode. Aerosol cans with even a little paint or bug spray still contain some of that propellant, and they can blow up under pressure, injuring sanitation workers or damaging equipment. In addition, insecticides and other dangerous chemicals left in the can need to be disposed of in a way that will not hurt the environment. In fact, in most states, it is illegal to dispose of household hazardous waste by putting it in a landfill or incinerator.

How to recycle aerosol cans

If possible, use up all the material in your can. Empty aerosol cans are treated like any other type of steel or aluminum can. Residents of Ann Arbor, MI; Memphis, TN; and many other communities can place empty aerosol cans in their curbside bin. The process for recycling full aerosol cans is simple. Using special equipment, a worker punches a hole in the can and allows any remaining liquid to drain out. The liquid is kept in a secure container so it can be disposed of properly. The empty metal can is sent to a metal recycler. Your task is to get that full can to someone qualified to recycle it. In most cases, that recycler will be your community’s household hazardous waste center. Be sure and check with your local program to determine its hours, fees and if it has limits on the quantity of material it will accept at any given time. West Palm Beach and Delray Beach, FL; and Orange County, CA; have centers that are staffed five days a week. Merced, CA, holds collection days once a month. Some communities take their household hazardous waste programs on the road to provide even more convenient drop-off locations. San Antonio does special collection events every few months. Seattle’s Wastemobile program operates more frequently. As with any type of household hazardous waste, leave all materials in their original containers and leave the labels intact. Even part of a label can help the staff at the center determine what is in the can and how to best dispose of it. Transport material upright and away from valuable items in case there is a spill.

Reuse may be possible

If your aerosol can contains spray-paint that is still usable, it is worth checking to see if your community has any type of reuse program. The Habitat for Humanity ReStore in Syracuse, NY, will accept spray-paint cans if they are at least half-full, have a functioning nozzle and the agitator ball still moves when the can is shaken.