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).

Lessons from a waste warrior

The Waste Contractors & Recyclers Association of NSW (WCRA) executive director, Tony Khoury tells Inside Waste what bought him into the WARR industry and what keeps him here.

What was your first role involving waste and resource recovery?

In the mid-1960s loading rubbish into the back of my older brother’s ute, after which he drove us to the Auburn tip. This long-closed landfill is now the site of the Japanese Gardens (and as was the common practice in those days, we drove around unrestrained in the back of the ute).

Also, throughout the 1960s, in our Lidcombe backyard, my Dad had one of the many thermal waste reduction plants (an old 44-gallon drum, that we would throw rubbish in and set on fire almost weekly).

My first paid job in the waste management industry was in 1991 with Pacific Waste Management, where the state manager David Moffett taught me about the importance of productivity. Lesson number one was a lecture on not driving past one tip to get to another. Later on in the week, I decided to apply my new found productivity learnings to the concept of ‘double-shifting the trucks’.I then had to survive a near death interrogation from an irate operations manager.

 What’s the favourite part of your role at WCRA?

  • I enjoy the scope in my role at WCRA that allows me the opportunity of working through issues to solve problems with a member or a group of members
  • I also have a lot of variety in my role, but the opportunity of delivering training to the workers is often very rewarding

How has WCRA changed since you initially became involved?

  • In 2003 a significant percentage of my time at WCRA was spent on industrial relations issues. That problem was solved by the modern award and employment relations reforms that were passed in 2010.
  • In 2008, then NSW Premier Morris Iemma increased the waste levy of $40 by $10 per tonne pa plus CPI. The current waste levy is now $146 per tonne, an increase of 365 per cent over 14 years. Today much of my time is spent on waste management and EPA issues.

Describe some of the achievements that you are most proud?

  • I take a lot of satisfaction from the wonderful support that I receive from our WCRA members, sponsors and the executive. This has allowed us to build the membership and our relevance. The fact that we own our own premises makes it much easier to hold meetings and conduct training sessions.
  • The negotiations that resulted in one national modern award (the Waste Management Award 2020). This award covers employment obligations for the employers and the workers in our industry. At the time we encountered fierce attacks from both Victoria and Queensland.
  • The Australian Standard for mobile garbage bins, where I chaired the development of the standard in the mid-2000’s. It is now well accepted across the country that we use yellow lids for co-mingled recycling, red lids for general waste and green lids for green waste.
  • I also take a lot of pride from my negotiations with Sydney Water that occurred around seven years ago, when WCRA argued long and hard and achieved a back-dated CPI increase for all grease trap waste processing. At the time, this resulted in over $1.2 million in refunds to waste processing facilities.
  • In the early 1990s as the general manager of Clinical Waste Australia (now Cleanaway Daniels), I was involved in overseeing the upgrade of the incinerator with the installation of an air quality control and scrubbing system. Without this upgrade, the facility would have been shut down by the NSW EPA. To this day, the incinerator remains operational and the only clinical waste incineration facility in NSW.

My strangest moment at WCRA

  • Around the 2007-2008 years Transpacific Industries (TPI) which owned Cleanaway prior to 2008 was acquiring a lot of waste business operations across the country. At the time, I was approached by one of TPI’s senior executives for a copy of WCRA’s membership list. When I refused, he indicated that TPI would just have to buy the Association. On contacting our president at the time Jim Perry for advice, he told me “to show him the door” (or words to that effect).


AIP Conference: Experts take a look inside packaging waste

The Australian packaging industry has traditionally been seen as being at odds with the diligent efforts of the WARR industry to deal with the impacts of a society highly dependent on packaging.

This year the AIP Australasian Packaging Conference 2020 faced the issue head on with the theme of sustainable packaging threaded throughout its October online event. It was attended by 300 delegates and featured 80 speakers.

President of the World Packaging Organisation (WPO) Professor Pierre Plenaar opened the conference with his keynote address Global Perspective on Packaging: Fit for the Future.

“Plastic has its place but that place is not in our environment” he stated, adding that “it needs to be kept in a circular economy where they can be recycled, reused or even composted.

“But plastic is a necessity for keeping food safe, protected (especially during COVID) and for reducing food waste. But we do need to develop many solutions that reduce packaging volume and impact without compromising on protection.”

According to Plenaar, the WPO envisions a world without waste by increasing plastic recycling and identifying alternatives. He outlined the three main areas where the organisation has focused to reduce packaging waste:

  • Reduction of food waste
  • Reduction of packaging waste
  • Increasing packaging education

“The WPO works with the UN and its Industrial Development Association where we have been focusing on helping developing countries to create systems to reduce the packaging and transition it to a recycling program.”

Shocked at plastic waste

The focus for the WPO in 2021-2023 is the identification of key countries that require WPO assistance in achieving their Extended Producer Responsibility schemes.

Plenaar said that he was “shocked” when he visited developing countries and saw the vast amounts of packaging on the beaches and in the oceans. “It’s much worse to see this in person than just looking at a photo.”

He added that another area of focus for the WPO was mono-material packaging. According to the Food Packaging Forum, mono-material films are said to be ‘fully recyclable’ in contrast to ‘conventional multi-layer composite films [which are] difficult to recycle because of the need to separate the different film layers.’

Twenty-five per cent of food waste can be eliminated

Plenaar cited the UN which claims that, of the existing figure of 35 per cent of food waste, up to 25 per cent of that could be eliminated through packaging. “We are concentrating on this through our Worldstar Award categories.”

However, Plenaar noted that pushing against the WPO attempts to curb packaging waste was a demand by consumers for convenience, which was illustrated by the growing amount of single-use packaging.

“This is a heavy burden on the environment and we need to manage that waste better. We are facing a crisis due to the unresolved challenges of packaging recyclability and recycling. Our rates across the world are not great. In the US it is 28 per cent, Europe is much better at 40 per cent but in Asia the schemes are not in place yet.

“Unfortunately, India has shelved plans for a full ban on single use plastics for now, but is pushing increased awareness campaigns and collection points. Meanwhile Latin America has relatively low commitments to sustainability with few regulations in place,” he added.

No Time to Waste

A breakout session on Day 2 of the conference focused on multiple aspects of the circular economy, from consumer awareness, to economics, materials and design.

Amcor Flexibles director, safety, quality, and sustainability Richard Smith stated succinctly what many in the WARR industry believe, in his presentation No Time to Waste, “because that’s exactly where we are right now; we have no time to waste”. Drilling down into soft plastics, Smith noted that despite their ubiquitousness, these materials have been extraordinarily successful in reducing waste over the past 20-odd years, along with delivering significant environmental benefits.

“Flexible packaging offers the ability to substantially reduce the amount of plastics we use because it replaces other more difficult waste material,” he said. However, he acknowledged that a paradox that lies within the flexibility of the material.

“It’s lightweight with good barrier qualities and low cost with a low carbon footprint. But this has also created some of its challenges in that, at the end of its life, there is little mass and, as a result poses a challenge to the waste industry which depends on a large amount of mass to collect and recycle.

“So, it has low value in collection at its end of life while also being hard to compete against the cheap cost of virgin materials,” he said.

Smith also said, for soft plastics, mechanical recycling wasn’t going to be able to close the loop on its own, the industry must turn to chemical recycling.

“This is the way where we can close the loop on soft plastics. We need to consider that soft plastics are a very large portion of the plastics we use in Australia now.”

Smith noted that another aspect is that the amount of mechanical recycling infrastructure which has been put into place has been very much around rigid packaging materials.

“But against the paradox, there is a huge opportunity if we can turn that linear economy model into a circular economy,” he said.

Smith added that the solution to the circularity problem has several dimensions, including the packaging itself, the waste-collection infrastructure, consumer behaviour, and the recycling infrastructure itself.

He referred to Amcor’s involvement in the Holy Grail project in Europe, which aims to ensure a purer recycling stream using digital watermarks on packaging.

Smith said that he considered targets to be an important tool in encouraging investment in the circular economy.

“There is a strong future for us with the technology available; it’s just a matter of a concerted effort across the supply chain, and that’s where the [2025 National Packaging] targets will come into play,” he added.