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Best Practices for Aerosol Can Disposal Under the EPA’s Universal Wastes Rule

Toby Graham /

Aerosol cans? More like aerosol can’ts—as in you can’t simply throw them away, you can’t ignore them, and you can’t afford to let them become sources of safety and compliance risk.

Fortunately for many organizations, the United States Environmental Protection Agency has recently taken steps to put the “can” back into aerosol cans. Late last year, the EPA completed its final rulemaking regarding “universal wastes,” streamlining regulations for facilities that need to regularly discard empty aerosol containers. Essentially, the EPA no longer treats aerosol cans as separate from other materials in the “universal wastes” category.

Here’s how the agency summarizes the change:

“With this rule, EPA adds hazardous waste aerosol cans to those ‘universal wastes’ regulated under title 40 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), part 273. This change in the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) regulations is expected to reduce regulatory costs for a wide variety of establishments generating and managing aerosol cans, including the retail sector, by providing a clear, protective system for handling hazardous waste aerosol cans.”

Prior to the rulemaking, 6 states had already added aerosol cans to their universal waste listings. All states will need to adopt this new regulation moving forward.

What Does This Mean?

Aerosol cans are small cans that contain a pressurized chemical. In the past, if an aerosol can contained a hazardous chemical, the entire container would need to either be completely emptied according to a specific EPA definition, or the non-empty cans would need to be collected and disposed of properly by a hazardous waste disposer. It was a complicated process, which included proper labeling, storage, manifesting, and so forth.

Plus, any aerosol can waste would count towards a facility’s hazardous waste generation amount. If a facility generated certain amounts of hazardous waste in a calendar month, the facility could be classified as a “large” or “small” generator of hazardous waste. These two categories came with specific regulations the generating facility needed to follow.

How to Comply with the New Rule

Under this final ruling, facilities will have the option to manage and dispose of aerosol cans in 3 different ways:

1. You can continue to collect aerosol cans, store them, and dispose of them as hazardous waste. This approach probably isn’t the ideal one, as it’s the least cost-effective and requires that your facility follow strict regulations.

2. You can collect aerosol cans, store them, and dispose of them as universal waste. If you follow this approach, your facility is likely considered a small quantity universal waste generator. That means you must do the following:

  • Notify the EPA about your waste activities.
  • Accumulate the waste aerosol cans in a central sound unit, such as a metal 55-gallon drum.
  • Label the collection unit as “Universal Waste—Aerosol Can(s).”
  • Mark the label with the date of the day accumulation started.
  • Train all personnel on proper waste collection practices.
  • Do not collect leaking or damaged aerosol cans as universal waste.

Note that a small quantity universal waste generator may not accumulate more than 11,000 lbs of universal waste on site at any time. Accumulation dates cannot exceed 1 year.

3. You can collect the aerosol cans, empty the containers according to the EPA’s definition of “empty,” and recycle the leftover scrap metal. In this process, the pressurized material is removed via aspiration, no more than 3% by weight of the total capacity of the container remains in the container, and the pressure of the container reaches atmospheric pressure.

The safest and most environmentally responsible way to ensure the can meets the EPA’s definition of “empty” is to use a can puncturing device such as the one pictured at this link. The system will allow all waste to be captured in a way that presents little to no harm to the employee performing the operation.

The EPA stipulates the following when a can puncturing device is in use:

  • The operating unit’s manufacturer’s instructions must be maintained on site.
  • The operating unit must be situated on a flat surface and in a well-ventilated area.
  • A hazardous waste determination must be made on the waste drum.
  • All hazardous waste regulations for the facility’s generator status apply to the collected waste.
  • A spill cleanup kit needs to be in place.

Remember that before you use a waste collection drum for the material removed from the aerosol cans, you must first make a waste determination. In most cases, the material will need to be managed as hazardous waste due to its flammability. As a result, your facility will typically need to do the following when collecting this waste:

  • Use a metal, closed collection drum.
  • Ground the drum via a ground wire connected to a grounded object such as a conduit or water pipeline.
  • Apply a “Hazardous Waste” label to the drum and fill out the appropriate sections on the label.
  • Mark the label with an accumulation start date.
  • Label the drum with a “Flammable or Ignitable” label.
  • Follow further generator hazardous waste requirements based on your facility’s generator status.

For more information on this final rulemaking, please contact us.

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