Beware! How 10 Dangerous Materials Are Recycled

Trash is always messy, but what happens when recycling gets downright dangerous? From heavy metals to undetonated explosives, check out the ways Americans are recycling perilous materials into useful new products.

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Explosives available for reuse and recycling range from unused fireworks to unexploded landmines and other heavy propellants, called

unexploded ordnance

or UXOs.

Generally, explosives are taken to a safety range where they are ignited and the hazardous chemicals are burnt off.

However, metals such as brass, steel and aluminum typically remain at the end of the detonation process, totaling up to 60 percent of the total weight, and these will be recycled.

Technologies are also emerging to convert unexploded propellants into commercial mining explosives and even fertilizer – proving that even uncommon materials can be put to good use.

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It probably doesn’t come as a surprise that industrial acids, such as oxalic, formic and hydrochloric acids, are challenging to recycle. But technologies are growing to dispose of acids safely without burying them in chemical landfills.

By diluting industrial acid, such as hydrochloric acid common to the steel industry, to 5 percent volume and balancing it to a neutral pH, the solution is no longer corrosive and can be disposed of down the drain in some jurisdictions.

Systems also exist to reprocess industrial acids for reuse, reducing the need for virgin acids and eliminating the disposal of spent acid and neutralized sludge.

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Firearms are often recycled through

community gun melts

, in which unwanted weapons are rounded up and melted down for scrap metal. Metals recovered from gun melts are then used in new products, such as washing machines, car parts and refrigerators.

Empty shell casings and other ammunition can be reloaded and reused, as well as being melted down for scrap.

In addition to conventional recycling methods, creative greenies have repurposed unwanted armaments and ammunition into loads of unusual products, from jewelry to building materials for the 2012 Olympic Games.

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As a known carcinogen, asbestos is no longer permitted for use in the U.S. But

before 1978

, the material was widely used for a variety of applications, from walls and insulation to adhesives – meaning there’s still plenty of it around that needs to be disposed of properly.

The most common way to dispose of asbestos is to wet the material, seal it with plastic and transport it to a regulated chemical landfill. But in recent years, cutting-edge technologies are emerging to recycle the hazardous material rather than simply burying it away.

By heating asbestos to high temperatures in a process called vitrification, the material can be converted into harmless palex or borosilicate glass for use in ceramics products – creating a range of new options for asbestos disposal.

Note: Although our ability to recycle asbestos is growing, you should never try to remove or recycle asbestos yourself. The best thing to do when confronted with the material is to contact a specially licensed asbestos abatement company for proper disposal.

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Lead in good condition is not considered hazardous, but lead from paint chips or dust can be dangerous if not handled properly.

Today, about 80 percent of lead is used in lead acid batteries (such as car batteries), which are readily recyclable. Additional uses for lead include radiation shielding, cable sheathing and lead sheet used by the building industry.

All totaled, about 90 percent of lead is used in readily recyclable products, and almost all of it is recycled in the U.S.

Although it may sound like tricky business, recycling lead is not all that different from reprocessing other metals. To see the process up close, check out this lead recycling video from How Stuff Works.

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They may be produced for safety, but fire extinguishers can be tough to recycle.

For starters, the contents are under high pressure and may explode if the tank is punctured or the contents are mixed with other materials. Very old fire extinguishers may also contain carbon tetrachloride, a known carcinogen.

However, the tank of a fire extinguisher is made of highly-recyclable steel, while the spraying mechanism contains brass and plastic.

So, how are fire extinguishers recycled? Dry chemical extinguishers can be discharged, and then the casing can be recycled with scrap metal.

Carbon dioxide fire extinguishers are refillable and should be refilled after each use. Contact your local fire department or a fire extinguisher recharging company in your area for details.

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Commonly referred to as Freon, a

registered trademark of DuPont

, refrigerants are used for cooling in cars, refrigerators, air conditioners and other appliances.

The EPA requires that all refrigerants, including Freon and similar chemicals, go through a recovery, recycling or reclamation process in accordance with strict guidelines.

To recycle refrigerants, licensed technicians go through a variety of processes to remove the chemicals from automobiles and appliances. From there, they are sent through an oil separator, filter and dryer and processed for reuse.

Want to learn more about how refrigerants are recycled? Check out this truly amazing GE recycling plant in Philadelphia that processes more than 1 million appliances per year and salvages refrigerants and other components for recycling.

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Pesticides, herbicides and fungicides are, by nature, highly poisonous and extremely dangerous materials – meaning it’s vital to dispose of them properly at licensed hazardous waste facilities.

After being dropped off at HHW facilities, pesticides are typically sent to a secure chemical landfill or incinerator.

While these materials cannot be recycled, many pesticides dropped off at HHW collectors are still usable. Usable items are often made available to the public for free at HHW “swap shops,” reducing the need for disposal.

Systems also exist to chemically degrade chlorinated hydrocarbon pesticides, but these methods are still being tested and are not yet considered a viable large-scale disposal option.

Fortunately, gardeners and farmers have loads of options when it comes to producing healthy crops without pesticides, including integrated pest management (IPM) and other organic gardening methods.

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They’re made to save your life, but recycling smoke detectors is often messier than it looks.

The majority of all household smoke detectors in the United States contain a radioactive element, americium-241. While the amount of Am-241 is small enough to be considered harmless, additional care must be taken when disposing of smoke detectors.

That said, these common household products contain circuit boards that can be recycled with other e-waste. The battery, hard plastic case and remaining metals are also recyclable after radioactive elements are removed and managed properly.

Most smoke detectors are disposed of through manufacturer take-back programs. Curie Environmental Services also provides a first-of-its kind mail-back program for all brands of smoke detectors.

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Improper disposal of discarded medical sharps, both by home users and health care facilities, can pose potential health risks to the public, waste workers, janitors and anyone who handles the garbage.

For example, waste workers may be exposed to potential needle stick injuries and infection when sharp containers break open inside garbage bags or are mistakenly sent to a recycling center – making proper disposal crucial for this common medical waste material.

After used sharps are transported to a hazardous waste collector, they are often disposed of in medical waste incinerators.

However, innovators are exploring ways to recover valuable resources from used sharps. Through a partnership with Waste Management, medical tech company BD currently accepts used sharps and recycles them into useful new products, such as its BD Recykleen sharps collectors.

More Answers from Earth911: 10 Recycling Mysteries, Solved!

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Beware! How 10 Dangerous Materials Are Recycled

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