The production of aerosol cans is on the rise in the metal packaging market, with over five billion units manufactured annually in Europe. But still, many people in the UK are uncertain about how to recycle aerosols, despite over 90% of UK households being able to recycle aerosols through kerbside recycling collections.
Aerosols are used in our daily life, from deodorants to hairsprays, and sunscreens. The presence of pressurised contents can sometimes cause confusion over the recyclability of the packaging. In fact, a WRAP24 study found that most consumers still dispose of aerosols in residual waste instead of recycling them. This uncertainty can lead to improper disposal of recyclable cans in landfills.
Aerosol cans represent a common waste conundrum: the balancing act between environmental responsibility and waste management challenges. How they are disposed of has the potential to either contribute to a more sustainable future or add to our planet’s waste. This is why knowledge of how to recycle matters.
Why recycling aerosol cans matters
The aerosol cans industry is growing year on year, with forecasts expecting it to grow by 3% between 2022 and 2026. Given the size of the industry already, recycling aerosols is a way of preserving our environment and reducing waste in landfills. Most of the time, these cans are composed of valuable materials like aluminium or steel, which are known to be recycled infinitely without a loss in quality. By repurposing these materials, we minimise our carbon footprint and at the same time make sure that our resources are available for generations to come.
In Europe, metal packaging has impressive recycling rates. Steel packaging has a recycling rate of over 85%, while aluminium cans have a rate of 73%. This is due to the magnetic and magnetizable properties of metal, which makes it easy to separate during recycling and once sorted correctly the quality of the recycled material is virtually identical to virgin material as metal is infinitely recyclable.
Not only does the recycling of metal aerosols contribute to a circular economy, but it also significantly reduces the energy required during the process. Strikingly, the production of aluminium from recycling materials requires only 5% of the energy compared to producing aluminium from virgin material.
The recycling of aerosols doesn’t come without challenges, however. Propellants in aerosol cans – which are used to press the product out of the aerosol – could be flammable and therefore represent a theoretical risk of fire. It’s important to note that aerosols have not contained ozone-depleting chemicals—also known as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs)—for many decades, first because companies voluntarily eliminated them, and by law since 1989. It’s up to the consumer to dispose of them correctly – which crucially, includes emptying the aerosol completely. However, consumers are not always aware and improper disposal of items in the incorrect recycling bin or general waste may occur.
Once collected the cans are sorted by the municipality recycling facilities (MRFs) followed by the next step: baling, a process in metal recycling that crushes it into blocks using high forces, which can pose a potential fire risk if the propellant in the aerosol hasn’t been emptied. This chance increases when aerosols are recycled exclusively together. According to the FEA, it is best to recycle, aerosols in a mixed metal stream, with baling taking place outside or with adequate ventilation in case cans were collected with propellants still present.
The Buying Green report states that 59% of consumers seek information on the recyclability or sustainability of the product packaging they purchase. As a survey by the On-Pack Recycling Label (OPRL) found, that 42% of those who are unsure about recyclability will take a guess, and a further 20% said when they are unsure, they choose not to recycle.
According to Alupro, a waste composition analysis conducted by local authorities in the UK, aerosol cans are correctly disposed of in the recycling bin in approximately 60% of cases. The opportunity exists, nearly half of all consumers can improve their recycling behaviour, and with education, factors such as confusion can be minimised and contribute to more consumers recycling properly.
In the pursuit of a sustainable future
Many European countries have established recycling programs to collect and recycle metal, which includes aerosol cans, to combat confusion and boost recyclability rates. These cans can be recycled either in a separate stream or together with other recyclables. These programmes mean that consumers can easily recycle empty aerosol cans by placing them in their household recycling bins or by taking them to a designated recycling centre.
To fully maximise the benefits of recycling aerosol cans, it is crucial to collaborate across our value chain. As an example, environmental and recycling organisations, (local) authorities and businesses could collaborate more to establish clear guidelines for proper aerosol can recycling. While creating more awareness to all of us, users of the aerosols on how to properly dispose of fully emptied cans in the area we live.
Ultimately, the journey toward effective aerosol can recycling is a shared responsibility. Brands must commit to sustainable packaging designs. Consumers, armed with knowledge, can make informed choices and ensure that empty aerosol cans find their way to proper recycling channels.
In the pursuit of a more sustainable future, recycling aerosol cans serves as proof of our ability to bring about positive change. By addressing challenges head-on and embracing innovative solutions, consumers and brands can help conserve the environment and reduce waste.