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Are aerosol cans recyclable?

Typically, recycling education programs focus on putting the right items in the recycling bin because it’s good for the environment, but consider also, a recycling facility is a workplace.

This means that many dangerous items which end up in recycling bins need to be sorted by hand, so part of recycling is also enhancing the working conditions of recycling workers. Surprisingly, one of the more dangerous forms of contamination in yellow top bins is actually marked as recyclable – aerosol cans.

Across Australia, the waste and recycling industry would like all Local Governments and Shires to remove aerosol cans as ‘recyclable’ from their waste education programs. I will explain why.

The Australian waste management industry has experienced many tragic fires. Prominent examples include the SKM and Bradbury’s sites in metro Melbourne in 2019, which splashed across the front pages of The Age.

But beyond these headline tragedies, there have also been many other examples of fires damaging or destroying recycling facilities including material recovery facilities in Perth and Northern NSW. Waste fires can also occur in trucks and are a unique risk of recycling as the trucks are full of a highly flammable material – plastic and paper.

Fire hazard

When a hot load (code for a fire risk) is detected in a waste truck, the normal procedure is to dump the material in the nearest safe location, typically by the side of the road, creating a huge clean up job.

After trucks, waste fires are clearly a risk to workers, and have the potential to destroy the recycling facilities upon which we all depend. But beyond these obvious damages, waste fires have more subtle effects including dramatically driving up insurance costs for all in the industry, health costs to residents around them and reputational damage to the industry including investors.

There are many possible approaches to mitigating fire. These include installing best-practice fire control systems and minimising the size of stockpiles. Given the huge risk posed by fire, industry continues to in invest in, and is committed to these changes.

Unfortunately, these mitigation efforts will be ineffective if the waste stream contains sources of ignition – or problem items which cause fires. There are many fire sources in the waste stream including lithium-ion batteries, flares and (mostly) spent lighters. All warrant attention, but here I would like to focus on one important ignition source: aerosol cans.

Aerosol cans contain flammable propellant gases – typically propane, and/or butane. When crushed in compactor trucks or by wheel loaders on tipping floors, these steel or aluminium cans can spark and cause a fireball.

Extensive evidence

The Victorian Waste Management Association (VWMA), in partnership with the Waste Contractors and Recyclers Association of New South Wales (WCRA NSW), has collected extensive evidence including videos showing aerosol cans causing fires in waste trucks and facilities.

Unfortunately, while batteries and spent lighters clearly don’t belong in the recycling bin, and are marked that way, aerosol cans today are marked as recyclable, and many local governments still include them as recyclable in their waste education.

Instead, aerosol cans should be directed to hazardous household waste collection in a similar manner to other gas bottles, paints, solvents and other flammable items.

Proponents from the packaging industry have argued that if the can is completely emptied, it can be recycled. However, it is the experience of waste providers that this instruction is not followed with enough consistency to ensure the fire risk is prevented.

Packaging companies have an avenue to ensure their aerosol cans become recyclable – simply do not use a flammable propellant. Until this is the case, the risk of an aerosol causing a fire in a truck full of compacted paper and plastic or at a recycling facility far outweighs the value of the very small amount of metals recovered from the can.

In noting and accepting this argument, Sustainability Victoria has agreed to remove aerosol cans as recyclable from its statewide kerbside recycling education program. The risk posed by aerosol cans is also under consideration by other State agencies.

However, waste education is ultimately in the hands of Australia’s hard-working Local Governments and Shires, which directly face residents. It is for this reason we ask all Local Governments to assist by removing aerosol cans as recyclable in their waste education.

Alex Serpo is the executive officer at the Victorian Waste Management Association (VWMA).