Asbestos is known for causing various health conditions, such as mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis. However, its other properties historically made it a common addition to numerous products, especially building materials.
Although many applications for asbestos are now banned in the U.S., old asbestos-containing products remain in use throughout the country. When these products are removed, they must go somewhere.
Often, they go to landfills. However, there is a significant amount of asbestos waste, and the landfills are running out of space.
Not all landfills can accept asbestos waste. Landfills must have the right permits to store this type of hazardous waste because, without proper management, the contamination could spread.
Could recycling be a better option than landfills?
Asbestos can continue to be a health risk, even after it is removed from a structure or otherwise taken out of use. Burying it in a landfill does not make this problem entirely go away, but, for a long time, there weren’t many other options for disposing of this nearly indestructible mineral.
Recycling is one method used to keep paper, plastic and glass waste out of landfills, and it may be a viable option for keeping asbestos out of landfills. However, this option may seem counterintuitive, considering the toxicity of the substance.
How is asbestos recycled?
Asbestos is not recycled in the same way that other products, like paper or plastic, might be. The most common method of asbestos recycling involves converting the asbestos fibers into glass or ceramic. Once converted into glass or ceramic, the recycled asbestos is safe to use and can no longer cause illnesses like mesothelioma or asbestosis.
The process that converts asbestos into glass or ceramic involves washing the fibers in a hot solution of sodium hydroxide, applying an acid to dissolve the fibers and heating the solution to almost 2,300 degrees Fahrenheit.
There are many regulations that a facility must meet if they plan to offer asbestos recycling services like this. The organization must first obtain the proper approval from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) before starting this type of work. Then, the finished product must be tested and contain no detectable amount of asbestos.
Why isn’t asbestos recycling more common?
Unfortunately, the asbestos recycling process is significantly more expensive than sending asbestos to landfills, so very little asbestos ends up being recycled. In 2015, less than 875 pounds of asbestos waste was recycled out of the roughly 25.6 million pounds overall.
Although recycled asbestos may be safe and may reduce the amount of hazardous material in landfills, it remains a cost-prohibitive option in many situations. However, as technology continues to improve, there may be opportunities to reduce the cost of future asbestos recycling operations.