Recycling could very well prove to be a cost-effective way to dispose of asbestors while generating additional value for other industries that could find a use for those created by-products.
by Charles MacGregor
When the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced last December its plan to evaluate the public health risks associated with asbestos, included on a list with nine other chemicals, it re-introduced the public to a mineral many had long thought was banned. Since then, the EPA has worked quietly to put together the necessary resources to properly review and determine the dangers associated with asbestos. Among them was a scoping document released by the agency in June highlighting the current uses for asbestos, and what the EPA plans to analyze during its evaluation.
The June scoping document covered a wide array of topics. One paragraph in particular was telling of how pervasive asbestos had once been in the U.S., and how it impacts what facilities are dealing with today. According to the EPA’s scoping document1, of the approximately 25.6 million pounds of friable asbestos waste managed by facilities in 2015, less than half a ton of the material (875 pounds) was recycled. That number sits in stark contrast to the amount of friable asbestos waste that was treated (188,437 pounds) and the amount released into the environment (25.3 million pounds). No asbestos was released into the water at that time, but the small amount of asbestos that was recycled is concerning.
“While EPA does not have information regarding the specific reasons that more entities have not undergone the required approval procedure to convert asbestos-containing waste into asbestos-free material, we are aware that the processes used to complete conversion typically are energy intensive,” an EPA spokesperson said. “Additionally, the resulting product must not have detectable levels of asbestos, as measured using transmission electron microscopy (TEM), a highly sensitive analytical method. The asbestos National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP), pursuant to section 112 of the Clean Air Act, has a provision at 40 CFR section 61.155 entitled standard for operations that convert asbestos-containing waste material into non-asbestos (asbestos-free) material.”
Asbestos is a tiny, rigid and durable fiber capable of withstanding high temperatures and most chemical reactions. Until the mid-1970s, asbestos was included in many materials used during home construction, such as mastics, roofing tar, acoustical plaster and pipe insulations throughout the home. The mineral also found its way into automotive applications, including in brake pads, clutch linings and transmission plates. Everything changed with the passage of the Toxic Substances Control Act in 1976, setting into place new regulations and banning asbestos use in certain products.
The concerns regarding asbestos use in homes and buildings lies in the fact that asbestos is a carcinogen and has been linked to several diseases like asbestosis and mesothelioma2. Airborne fibers enter into the body through inhalation and settle into the lungs where they are eventually pushed into the lining of the organs, known as the mesothelium. Eventually tumors may develop in the lung lining leading to pleural mesothelioma. In other, more rare scenarios, those fibers could travel to the abdomen or heart, resulting in peritoneal or pericardial mesothelioma, respectively.
Since the enactment of the TSCA, the EPA has attempted to heavily regulate the mineral’s use in products, and in the 1980s had issued a final ruling in an attempt to ban asbestos use in the U.S. However, the far-reaching effort was overturned by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1991, citing that the agency had not considered enough alternative options that stopped short of a ban. The move hamstrung the EPA, though other parts of the original ban that took place in 1990 before the court’s decision were left intact, including regulations meant to prevent asbestos from being included in new products and banning it in other applications.
The Need To Recycle
Although the TSCA currently states that newly-manufactured products are only allowed to contain up to one percent asbestos, older products containing significantly more of the mineral are still being removed from homes and sent to facilities for processing. As those products are removed from homes and public buildings, the need for an effective way to recycle the mineral safely becomes a bigger challenge. Landfill space in the U.S. is shrinking, leaving facilities looking for new and creative ways to recycle. In the case of asbestos, there are several opportunities to recycle and perhaps even upcycle asbestos into new, safe products that no longer contain the material and can be used in other applications, such as packaging material or as a concrete aggregate.
For example, asbestos can be converted into an amorphous non-crystalline solid glass3, which is inert and free of the mineral. The process uses a heated NaOH solution able to produce a slurry that could be melted and turned into glass. The process takes up much less space than the current “wrap and bury” techniques employed today at many landfills, but does come at a cost. According to a study conducted with the Department of Energy, the process of treating the asbestos is significantly more expensive than current measures, in this case three times more expensive, but also includes several ways to generate cash from the by-products created during the reaction. Glass products created during the recycling process can be sold as materials for road and other construction and metal adhering to the asbestos-containing products can be recycled as well. Each of those impacts the bottom line and makes the recycling process a little more attractive.
Another study performed several years ago4 highlighted successes associated with mechanochemical treatment of asbestos, which breaks down the fibers into a stable, and more importantly, inert substance. In this case, researchers performing the study used a high-speed mill to grind the fibers into an inert substance that can be easily recycled. The researchers behind the study suggested that this type of recycling process could be done safely and easily at small-scale facilities, though the costs associated with this type of process were not included in the team’s report.
But while there are methods available to help recycle asbestos-containing materials, according to the EPA spokesperson, sites still have to apply and receive approval from the EPA before attempting to recycle the products.
“Unless approved to convert asbestos-containing waste material to non-asbestos material, entities regulated by the asbestos NESHAP must properly dispose of asbestos-containing waste material at a waste disposal site that accepts asbestos waste as per federal, state and local regulations,” the spokesperson said.
A Cost-Effective Disposal Method
Asbestos removal and disposal will continue to be an issue for the coming years as older homes and buildings are renovated or demolished. Landfill space is decreasing and facilities need to continue finding new ways to properly contain and care for asbestos to prevent accidental exposure to those products. Recycling could very well prove to be a cost-effective way to dispose of asbestos while generating additional value for other industries that could find a use for those created by-products. The price may be cost prohibitive now, but as technology improves and the need for innovation continues to grow, facilities should be looking toward new ways of recycling asbestos-containing materials as a way to bolster the bottom line and prepare for the future.
Charles MacGregor is a health advocate with the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance (MCA). His primary work focuses on asbestos education and advocating for mesothelioma awareness through community engagement. For more information about asbestos exposure or mesothelioma, contact MCA at [email protected]. Also, you can visit www.mesothelioma.com for more info.