Disposing of aerosol cans isn’t easy. But no matter where you are, you have options. The secret is knowing the rules and exemptions available to you in your state.

By Lisa Neuberger


If you look around your facility, chances are you will find aerosol cans. Their compact, portable delivery system makes them a good choice for applying everything from solvents, fixatives, paints, pesticides, foams and chemicals, to whipped cream and processed cheese. However, they are not so easy to get rid of.

Once you decide to dispose of an aerosol can, it becomes a regulated waste. The regulations that apply to that waste differ depending upon a number of factors, including the can contents, the propellant, the size of your business and your state.

Household Hazardous Waste Collections

While federal household hazardous waste laws allow residential households to toss aerosol cans into the trash, most states discourage this practice, and a few prohibit it altogether. Instead, states, counties and municipalities across the country offer periodic household hazardous waste collections to encourage homeowners to safely dispose of aerosol cans.

Businesses, on the other hand, may never simply throw a full or partially full aerosol can away. Waste aerosol can disposal is highly regulated in every state. If you are a small business, or you generate less than 220 pounds of hazardous waste per month, you may be able to take advantage of a household hazardous waste drive. Check with your state regulators to see if you qualify for this option. There will still be a fee for disposal, but it will be significantly cheaper than disposing the cans as hazardous waste.

If your business doesn’t qualify for a waste drive, your next step is to track down the laws that apply to aerosol can disposal in your state. Some states have more stringent regulations than others.

Waste Determinations

All state and federal laws require you to manage your full or partially full aerosol cans as hazardous waste unless you take steps to qualify for exemptions.  In any case, you must make a waste determination according to the steps outlined in 40 CFR 262.11 (see Steps to Identifying a Hazardous Waste sidebar, page 72). Not all aerosol cans contain hazardous substances. You can use your knowledge of the contents of the can, another resource such as a safety data sheet, or test the contents at a lab to determine if the waste is a solid or hazardous waste.

You also need to make a hazardous waste determination for the propellant. Common propellants are gases such as propane or isobutene that exhibit the characteristic of ignitability or reactivity The propellant gas is pressurized into a liquid in the spray can. It mixes with the contents of the can when you press the nozzle, releasing the pressure, helping to force the liquid contents (such as paint or polish) out of the can and into the air as an aerosol.

At this point, if you determine the contents or propellants are listed or characteristic hazardous wastes, you may simply decide to manage the cans as hazardous waste. You’ll have to count them toward your monthly generator totals, manage them according to the regulations that apply to your generator category, transport them using a qualified hazardous waste transporter, and send them to a permitted hazardous waste recycling, treatment or disposal facility.

Empty cans

Alternately, you can empty cans of their contents and propellants. Most states allow you to send empty cans for recycling without having to manage them as hazardous wastes. Under federal regulations at 40 CFR 261.7, a hazardous waste container is empty when “all wastes have been removed that can be removed using the practices commonly employed to remove materials from that type of container, e.g., pouring, pumping and aspirating.” The can is not empty if you can still feel liquid moving when you shake it.

For the propellant, a container that has held a hazardous waste that is a compressed gas is empty when the pressure in the container approaches atmospheric. Note that containers that held acutely hazardous waste (e.g., many pesticides) must be triple rinsed to be considered empty, which isn’t really practical for aerosol cans. Most states want you to dispose of cans of pesticides and other toxic chemicals as hazardous wastes without emptying them.


Because you can’t just spray the cans to empty them (an illegal disposal method), puncturing the cans is a viable option, provided you end up recycling the cans. In order to use this option, you need to:

  • Know your local and state regulations. For instance, Alabama allows puncturing cans without a treatment permit, but you must notify the state in writing at least 60 days before you begin. Nebraska requires generators who drain cans to remove the characteristic of reactivity (usually from the propellant) to develop and follow a written waste analysis plan.
  • Capture any hazardous vapors. Most commercially available can puncturing systems come with filters for this purpose. Minnesota recently prohibited the venting or puncturing of aerosol cans after January 1, 2017, unless all liquids and gases are captured and properly disposed.
  • Be aware of exceptions. States may prohibit puncturing cans containing particular chemicals. For instance, Alabama bans the puncturing and draining of containers of ethyl ether, chlorinated compounds, pesticides, freons and foamers, oven cleaners or unknown substances.
  • Protect workers. Follow the can-puncturing device manufacturer’s directions, and state and federal OSHA regulations. This includes knowing permissible exposure limits, providing proper protective equipment and training. You may need to ground the can-puncturing device and follow other local fire code requirements.
  • Manage liquid contents as solid or hazardous waste. Avoid mixing incompatible wastes.

Universal Wastes

Currently, two states—California and Colorado—classify waste aerosol cans as universal wastes. Universal wastes qualify for streamlined compliance standards if they are handled correctly and ultimately sent for recycling.

Industry groups such as the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA) want EPA to classify and regulate all aerosol cans as universal wastes. RILA says this “would ultimately provide a reasonable and environmentally protective framework for all aerosol products.” However, even if EPA declares aerosol cans to be federal universal wastes, states will have the power to reject that classification. You will still need to check with your state to see how it classifies aerosol cans.


Disposing of aerosol cans isn’t easy. But no matter where you are, you have options. The secret is knowing the rules and exemptions available to you in your state. | WA

Lisa Neuberger specializes in workplace safety and environmental topics at J. J. Keller & Associates (Neenah, WI). She writes articles for J. J. Keller’s manuals and newsletters with timely environmental news and topics for safety and environmental professionals. Lisa can be reached at [email protected][email protected] or [email protected].