UPDATE: December 9, 2019: EPA's Final Rule to add hazardous waste aerosol cans to the universal waste program appeared in the Federal Register today, December 9, 2019. The Final Rule is effective on February 7, 2020. Read more here.
UPDATE: November 24, 2019–A pre-publication version of EPA's Final Rule to add aerosol cans to the universal waste programs is now available. Read the Final Rule.
UPDATE: March 9, 2018—US EPA has now proposed adding hazardous waste aerosol cans to the RCRA Universal Waste program. Read more here.
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Aerosol cans are a common waste product of modern industry and commerce. They contain paint, lubricants, glues, pesticides, and many other chemicals that may be hazardous—not to mention the propellant that makes the can spray, which itself may be hazardous. The wide variety of aerosol cans at a typical facility, the different products they contain, and other unique qualities make aerosols a challenge to manage under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) hazardous waste requirements.
The good news? If you are able to empty the aerosol can before disposal, it will be excluded from regulation as hazardous waste under RCRA. That said, when you manage hazardous waste, the word “empty” has a meaning that differs in major ways from the standard, everyday definition. Making a container “RCRA-empty,” in other words, is more complex than deciding if a gallon-container of milk is empty or not.
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Emptying an Aerosol Can, RCRA Style
So, how do you make sure your aerosol cans are “RCRA-empty” and therefore won’t be considered hazardous waste by US EPA?
First, we’ll address the product itself. If the aerosol can contains a hazardous waste or a residue of a hazardous waste (e.g., an ignitable paint), it can be excluded from RCRA regulation only after it meets the conditions specified at 40 CFR 261.7(b)(1) to be considered “RCRA-empty.”
To make an aerosol can “RCRA empty,” the generator must remove all liquid that can be removed by normal means (i.e., by spraying out the contents during use of the product) and have no more than one inch or 3% by weight of residue remaining.
Emptying Aerosols of Acute Hazardous Wastes
However, if the contents in the aerosol can are an acute hazardous waste on the RCRA P List at 40 CFR 261.33(e), generators must follow different standards to empty the container. The rules for emptying an aerosol can that contains an acute hazardous waste are found at 40 CFR 261.7(b)(3).
Hazardous waste containers that contain acute hazardous wastes must be triple rinsed before they are considered “RCRA-empty.” Since rinsing the inside of an aerosol can is impractical if not impossible for generators, acutely hazardous P-list residue in an aerosol can is regulated as hazardous waste and is not eligible for exclusion under the RCRA rules for empty containers. What about the second type of potential hazmat in every aerosol can—the propellant? A container that has held a hazardous waste that is a compressed gas (e.g., propane) is empty when the pressure in the container approaches atmospheric.
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Best Management Practices for Aerosols
What if a worker throws an aerosol can that’s not RCRA-empty into a storage drum? Now the drum would have to meet the standards of the 90-day, 180-day, or satellite accumulation rules at 40 CFR 262.34 (as appropriate for your facility).
This aerosol mismanagement dilemma is a frequent cause of RCRA non-compliance. To avoid this problem, one best management practice is to store aerosol cans for evaluation. An aerosol can contains unused commercial chemical product that becomes a waste when the generator determines it to be so. An evaluator may do one of five things with an aerosol can:
- Dispose of it. (It is now a solid waste and possibly a hazardous waste subject to evaluation.)
- Return it to service as is because it still contains usable product. (It is not a solid/hazardous waste.)
- Repair a broken nozzle to return it to service. (It is not a solid/hazardous waste.)
- Store it for recycling as is because it is RCRA-empty of its hazardous contents. (It is not a solid/hazardous waste.)
- Puncture it prior to storing it for disposal or recycling it to ensure it is RCRA-empty of its hazardous contents.
If you decide to puncture the cans, as listed in option 5, the question remains: If the aerosol can is not RCRA-empty, is puncturing the can considered a form of hazardous waste “treatment”? Under the Federal rules, the aerosol can is considered a container. So, while puncturing the can may not be a “normal means” to remove the contents, this method is not necessarily prohibited as treatment.
That said, it’s crucial to remember that individual states are authorized to create hazardous waste rules more stringent than Federal RCRA standards. Some states may consider the aerosol a D003 characteristic waste due to reactivity. If your state regulates aerosols this way, puncturing the can—and any method used to remove the contents other than the normal means—may be considered treatment, which typically requires a RCRA permit. You will need to check your State regulations before determining how to make your aerosol cans RCRA-empty.
Remember, if you store hazardous waste prior to disposal or recycling, the waste is subject to counting (see 40 CFR 261.5), on-site management, and time limit rules. For this reason, if you are going to recycle your hazardous aerosol cans, you may consider puncturing them without prior storage (i.e., at the moment an aerosol can is taken out of service) so that it is excluded from counting as allowed by 40 CFR 261.5(c)(1). Lastly, it bears repeating: Make sure you are familiar with any unique requirements your state may have in place before making any decision about how to manage aerosol cans or any other hazardous waste.
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Bonus: Hazmat Returns from Retail Stores
For retail stores that ship aerosol cans back to a manufacturer, supplier, or distribution facility for recycling or a refund, US DOT finalized streamlined hazmat shipping rules in March 2016 under the Reverse Logistics Rule. The new rules for retailers lay out requirements for identifying hazmat products, packaging reverse logistics shipments, marking and labeling packages, and training shipping employees.