Are Aerosols Bad for the Environment? 7 Important Answers

Are Aerosols Bad for the Environment? 7 Important Answers

published on September 1st, 2022

Although aerosols no longer contain ozone-depleting substances, their environmental impact is still up for debate. 

Removing ozone-destroying substances from aerosol products was a step in the right direction, but aerosols are still bad for the environment.

Most aerosol products produce toxic chemicals, and aerosol sprays are made from unsustainable packaging.

Here’s everything you need to know about approaching aerosols with sustainability in mind.

1. What Exactly Are Aerosols?

When people think of aerosols, they imagine products that are sprayed out of a can, like dry shampoo, hair spray, antiperspirants, disinfectants, or spray-on sunscreen.

However, aerosols are actually tiny particles suspended in the atmosphere.

So, while they can come from the products mentioned above, there are also natural aerosols like dust, fog, or mist. 

However, when it comes to discussing sustainability, the conversation generally focuses on man-made aerosols. 

2. How Do Aerosols Affect the Environment?

VOCs

Since halocarbons were removed from aerosols, people assume aerosol products are no longer bad for the environment. 

These were eliminated from aerosol cans since they damaged the ozone layer and were replaced with other propellants.

While the ozone layer is repairing itself, there is more to aerosols and sustainability than this factor. 

More than 90% of the emissions from aerosol products are volatile organic compounds (VOCs) – which are potent sources of air pollution.

In 2017, just over 6% of VOC emissions in the UK were traced back to aerosols, which is more than the gasoline emissions from cars. 

Unsustainable Packaging 

Most aerosol cans are made from metal, typically steel or aluminum, coated with tin.

Metal is a non-renewable resource. Mining for metals is also detrimental to the environment.

Mining contributes to around 8% of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.

In 2020, the US metal industry emitted approximately 77.9 million metric tons of CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent) of emissions.

Mining can also contribute to water and soil pollution and physically degrade the environment as the mine site contributes to soil erosion and soil instability – which can disrupt the ecosystem by leaving wildlife without a habitat. 

The byproducts of mining tin are often radioactive compounds such as monazite, pyrochlore, and xenotime – these can harm humans, plants, and animals that come into contact with them.

It then requires energy to convert the metal ore into products like aerosol cans, but since most energy use in the US (and globally) is still based on fossil fuels, this is also unsustainable. 

Difficult to Recycle 

Metal is recyclable, and unlike plastic, it can be recycled an unlimited amount of times.

However, it’s difficult to recycle aerosol cans.

As they’re pressurized, many recycling facilities do not accept them in household recycle bins as they may damage the equipment at the recycling center.

Consult with your local council first to determine if an aerosol can is safe to put in your recycle bin.

Some scrap metal recycling centers may have the infrastructure to process these cans, but they are not accessible to everyone.

So, despite being made of recyclable material, aerosols are not always recycled, which contributes to waste and furthers the demand for mining as less metal is being recycled. 

Aerosols that still contain some product cannot go in a recycle bin.

You may have to send them to hazardous waste disposal services as products like disinfectant, sunscreen, and hairspray can cause pollution and harm marine life if they enter waterways from dumping these products down the sink.

They Can Emit Greenhouse Gasses

Aerosol cans need a propellant to push the product out.

Halocarbons were replaced with carbon dioxide or nitrous oxide, but flammable propellants like hydrocarbons can be found in products like hairsprays and antiperspirants. 

Nitrous oxide, also known as laughing gas, is also a greenhouse gas. 

Hydrocarbons can react with other environmental substances and form ozone, which acts as a greenhouse gas and a cause of smog. 

Aerosol products seem small, so some people might think their impact is negligible.

However, given the sheer volume of aerosol products in the market and how common they are, it can quickly add up.

3. Are Aerosols Still Bad for the Ozone Layer?

Aerosols can still contribute to air pollution, but they are no longer detrimental to the ozone layer – which protects the planet from the sun’s UV rays.

Thanks to The Montreal Treaty, ozone-depleting substances have been phased out of these products.

4. Are Aerosols Toxic?

Generally, aerosol products are toxic.

Most aerosols release VOCs.

VOCs can cause irritation, headaches, and damage to the central nervous system, the liver, and kidneys, and some have even been linked with an increased risk of cancer.

Aerosols can contain other toxic compounds too.

Research on 12 waterproofing sprays found that the four products considered toxic caused severe lung damage in mice, whereas the non-toxic products caused little to no harm. 

Disinfectants contain ingredients like sodium hypochlorite, hydrogen peroxide, alcohol, and glutaraldehyde.

These substances can cause irritation, respiratory issues, reproductive issues, and increase the risk of developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or cancer.

It’s also easy for these kinds of aerosols to enter waterways if you use them to disinfect a sink or shower.

Exposure to these compounds is harmful to marine life and can interfere with the ecosystem.

Meanwhile, oxybenzone found in sunscreen is also toxic to marine life (check out our article on sunscreen to find eco-friendly alternatives).

5. How Long Do Aerosols Stay in the Air?

How long aerosols stay in the air depends on the type and product. 

For example, the particles released when we speak are considered aerosols.

These aerosols can stay in the air for up to 9 hours.

Meanwhile, sulfate aerosols are generally not found in products; instead, they can come from fossil fuel combustion, volcanic emissions, and biomass burning. 

These kinds of aerosols can last around three to five days in the atmosphere. 

Secondary aerosols typically contain sulfate, nitrate, and organic carbon; these can last days to weeks. 

As mentioned earlier, aerosol cans nowadays use hydrocarbons, carbon dioxide, or nitrous oxide as propellants. 

6. Are There Eco-Friendly Aerosols?

There don’t seem to be eco-friendly aerosols. 

Some aerosol brands are switching to PET packaging and claim it is more sustainable.

PET is a type of plastic, so it is non-renewable, sourced from mining crude oil, and can only be recycled a limited amount of times. 

However, the big concern with metal aerosols is the pressurized container is difficult for recycling facilities to process.

With that said, despite PET being a recyclable material, it does not actually seem greener if most people cannot recycle these products since a new material doesn’t eliminate the fact that it’s a pressurized container. 

So, you will need to check with your local council before attempting to recycle empty aerosols, regardless of the packaging material.

Plus, plastic packaging can easily make its way into waterways, where it can degrade into microplastics which is harmful to marine life who mistake it for food.

Not to mention, humans eat fish that contain microplastics. 

Microplastics also contribute to coral bleaching.

Since recycling uses less energy than sourcing new materials from scratch, arguably, the most sustainable aerosol packaging would be sourced from recycled metal. 

7. What Are Eco-Friendly Alternatives to Aerosols?

There is no avoiding natural aerosols like fog, but when it comes to products, you can avoid buying some items in this form where possible.

Dry Shampoo Powder

Rather than spraying dry shampoo in your hair, you can find dry shampoo in powder form.

Roll-on Deodorant

Instead of using antiperspirant sprays, you can use roll-on deodorants. 

Nowadays, you can even find zero-waste deodorant bars.

Hair Gel

Some people may be able to sub out hairspray for hair gel. 

Sun Cream

Instead of spraying on sunscreen, you can find it in cream form.

There are even zero-waste sunscreen bars that are more sustainable.

Homemade Disinfectant 

Some people are opting to make their own natural disinfectants with lemon juice or apple cider vinegar as they’re non-toxic, biodegradable, and renewable.

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