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Can Asbestos Be Recycled?
When most people think of recycling, they think of a product being treated in some fashion so it can be used again. Asbestos recycling is a different process. Because asbestos is a known carcinogen, it is not safe to reuse. It must first be transformed so that it becomes safe to use.
Asbestos is recycled by heating the asbestos fibers to incredibly high temperatures, which changes the fibers into a harmless glass or ceramic that can be used for new purposes.
How Is Asbestos Recycled?
Asbestos can only be recycled by companies approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This is because removing asbestos-containing materials from the home, building, or vehicle will likely involve breaking or cutting, which may release asbestos fibers into the air and put your health at risk.
There is no safe amount of asbestos exposure, and asbestos is most dangerous when broken or cut. So, the first step of the recycling process should always be completed by people with the proper tools and training.
After asbestos is removed, here are the steps in the recycling process:
- The asbestos waste is washed in a solution of lye and then in acid to break down the fibers.
- The resulting solution is heated to 2,282 degrees Fahrenheit — at this temperature, the asbestos changes to glass.
- The resulting glass can then be safely used to create ceramic tiles or bricks, silicate glass, or other useful glass and ceramic objects.
Asbestos Abatement and Recycling Professionals
Because the EPA designates asbestos as hazardous waste, the removal and disposal of asbestos is strictly regulated.
Only EPA-licensed asbestos contractors can engage in asbestos removal or recycling.
The process of containing and minimizing the release of asbestos fibers is called asbestos abatement. Abatement is necessary for repairing or containing asbestos and is especially important during removal.
Abatement also refers to the disposal of asbestos by sealing it so it can’t release fibers and then storing it safely. Abatement is much more common and less expensive than asbestos recycling.
The professionals who work with asbestos — whether working on abatement or recycling asbestos — must adhere to strict EPA guidelines.
The EPA has a wealth of resources on asbestos, including information on asbestos laws and regulations and hiring professionals for asbestos abatement.
Asbestos Recycling Centers
One of the reasons that asbestos recycling is less common than simply disposing of asbestos in a landfill is the rarity of asbestos recycling centers. The facilities needed to handle and recycle asbestos safely are specialized and unique.
In most parts of the U.S., homeowners and asbestos abatement companies are limited in their options. There are many more landfills that allow asbestos to be dumped than there are asbestos recycling centers.
The EPA has a National List of Asbestos Landfills sorted by region and state.
When you consider the costs associated with treating and heating asbestos fibers to render them safe — and compare that to the cost of landfills already in use — it becomes clear why asbestos recycling is less common. Still, the benefits of asbestos recycling far outweigh those of simply burying asbestos in a landfill.
Asbestos Recycling Benefits
Burying asbestos in a landfill may be cheaper and more common, but there are several reasons why asbestos recycling is a better solution.
Some benefits of asbestos recycling are:
- Asbestos being sealed and buried in landfills takes up space in landfills that are already running out of room.
- Burying asbestos — especially unsealed — doesn’t remove the risk of exposure and, therefore, of asbestos-related diseases like mesothelioma. Even sealed asbestos may be damaged in the future and pose a threat. Once asbestos is recycled, the fibers are destroyed, and the leftover material is safe enough to eat off.
- The new products created from asbestos recycling can be sold and used instead of manufacturing new products, further reducing the burden on our landfills.
Dangers of Improper Asbestos Disposal
Improper asbestos disposal is a risk to your health and your wallet.
Health Risks of Improper Asbestos Disposal
Handling asbestos materials, especially damaged or worn materials, puts you at risk of inhaling or ingesting the fibers. These fibers can become lodged in your body and may eventually lead to a variety of diseases.
Some asbestos-related diseases include:
- Asbestosis is a chronic lung disease caused by inhaling asbestos fibers.
- Lung cancer may be caused by asbestos fibers, or the fibers may contribute to the worsening of the condition.
- Mesothelioma — a cancer of the lining of the lungs or other organs — is only known to be caused by asbestos exposure.
Without the proper training and equipment, anyone handling asbestos will likely be exposed to asbestos fibers and risk contracting one of these illnesses. While studies indicate that more exposure to asbestos increases the odds of contracting an asbestos-related illness, even a single exposure poses a risk.
There have been cases of mesothelioma patients who were only exposed to asbestos once or twice. It’s believed that any asbestos exposure could lead to mesothelioma later in life.
Financial and Legal Risks of Improper Asbestos Disposal
Since asbestos is categorized as toxic waste by the EPA, its removal and disposal are strictly regulated. While removing asbestos-containing materials from your home won’t get you in legal trouble, disposing of this hazardous waste can come with consequences if not done properly.
Many landfills don’t allow asbestos dumping at all, while others only accept asbestos disposals from licensed professionals approved by the EPA. The average person with a significant amount of asbestos to get rid of might not have any good options.
Disposing of asbestos improperly can result in fines and penalties at the state and federal levels.
For example, a man in West Virginia dumped asbestos in a national forest. He got a six-month suspended sentence and was ordered to pay more than $14,000 for court and cleanup costs.
Recycling Asbestos Products
Recycling asbestos is an important topic for two reasons:
- Asbestos exposure can lead to deadly diseases with no known cure.
- Asbestos was used to make thousands of products across different industries for decades, meaning many people were likely exposed — and remain at risk of developing an asbestos-related illness, even decades after they came in contact with asbestos.
At one time, asbestos was present in cars, ships, planes, walls, floors, roofs, plumbing, insulation, and just about any product that could benefit from being more heat or flame resistant.
Asbestos Products Used in Cars
Before the dangers were known, asbestos seemed like a natural fit in automobiles. The natural heat and friction-resistant qualities of asbestos made it ideal for use in brakes and throughout engines.
Vehicle parts that contained asbestos included:
- Brake parts
- Heat seals
- Hood and clutch linings
- Transmission plates
Asbestos Products Used in Construction
Asbestos is an excellent insulator, which means that including asbestos in building materials reduces the costs of heating and cooling the building. Asbestos is also flame-resistant, extremely durable, and cheap.
Asbestos would be an ideal product to include in nearly every material used in construction if it were safe. So it’s no surprise that it was used so extensively before the dangers of asbestos exposure were known.
Asbestos could be found in the following construction materials:
- Flooring tiles
- Roofing shingles
Asbestos Products Used in the Military
The government required every U.S. Navy ship to use asbestos until the 1980s. Asbestos was a great insulator and lightweight, making it an ideal product to insulate planes, ships, submarines, and tanks.
Asbestos use wasn’t limited to vehicles, either. The U.S. military used asbestos in construction and protective equipment for soldiers such as boilermakers or welders who worked with materials at high temperatures.
Asbestos was used in:
- Aircraft brakes and engines
- Cables and coatings
- Construction materials
- Fuel lines
- Hydraulic and other pumps
- Protective gear
- Steam pipes
Laws About Asbestos Recycling and Removal
Once the dangers of asbestos became known, its use dropped off significantly. In many parts of the world, it was banned altogether. In the U.S., however, asbestos remains legal.
Laws were passed to regulate asbestos use and disposal starting in 1976 with the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which allowed the EPA to begin regulating asbestos usage, production, importation, and disposal.
The Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) created rules for removing asbestos from schools in the U.S. and set guidelines for accrediting contractors to work with asbestos.
In July 1989, the EPA issued a rule banning nearly all asbestos-containing products. This rule was overturned in 1991, but in the time between the issuing of the rule and its being overturned, many of the remaining manufacturers using asbestos were forced to abandon its use.
The Asbestos National Emissions Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (Asbestos NESHAP) created requirements for working in most buildings to protect workers from asbestos exposure. These regulations require any building with more than four dwellings to be inspected for asbestos and specific procedures be followed for removing asbestos-containing waste.
The Alan Reinstein Ban Asbestos Now Act of 2023 is a proposed law to amend the TSCA of 1976 and prohibit the manufacturing or use of asbestos commercially in the U.S. This bill has been submitted in the U.S. Senate and may be voted on in 2023.
What to Do About Asbestos at Home
You should never attempt asbestos removal or abatement on your own.
Identifying asbestos in your home, even with the help of a kit, can be inaccurate and may expose you to asbestos in the process. If your home was built before the 1980s, it might be a good idea to have it inspected by professionals.
A natural disaster like a fire or hurricane could damage asbestos in your home and expose you and your family. Even natural wear and tear can cause some asbestos products to break down and release asbestos fibers that could be inhaled or ingested by you or your loved ones.
An asbestos inspection may also be a good idea if you plan to remodel or destroy any part of your home.
There are two types of asbestos professionals you may want to contact:
- Asbestos inspectors can determine if there is asbestos in your home and assess its condition. These inspectors can help you decide if you need to remove the materials and can help you contact professionals to do the work.
- Asbestos contractors are EPA certified to remove asbestos. They can safely get the asbestos-containing material out of your home and usually handle the proper recycling or abatement of any demolition debris.
Because of the hazards asbestos poses, you may have to stay out of certain rooms or even leave your house for a period of time while these professionals work. Once they’re done, however, you can feel confident that your home is free from this deadly toxin.
How Do I Find Asbestos Recycling Near Me?
If you have asbestos-removal needs, contact local asbestos contractors or your local household hazardous waste department. You can find out if asbestos recycling is an option near you and ensure your asbestos is removed and disposed of safely.
The Final Word on Asbestos Recycling
Currently, asbestos remains legal in the U.S., and asbestos recycling is not as common as other forms of disposal. Recycling asbestos may become more common in the future, however.
Key takeaways about asbestos recycling:
- An asbestos recycling center can turn asbestos fibers into glass that can be safely used in many products.
- Asbestos sealing and burying is more common because of the cost, but buried asbestos takes up space in rapidly filling landfills.
- The EPA has created guidelines for training and procedures that asbestos contractors must follow — never attempt to inspect or remove asbestos on your own. Trust the professionals.