Asbestos Recycling

Photograph of someone in a white and orange hazmat suit holding a black rod.

Asbestos is found in homes and buildings due to its widespread use in the 20th century, and when asbestos fibers are disturbed, the mineral can become deadly. Asbestos recycling can convert the material into a harmless glass, but it is not common today. Keep in mind, this type of asbestos removal and repurposing should be left to professionals.

Can You Recycle Asbestos
Short Answer: Yes

Asbestos recycling occurs when the material is transformed into completely safe silicate glass at very high temperatures. The glass can then be used to make ceramics and stoneware.

That said, asbestos recycling and asbestos removal and disposal should never be attempted without an asbestos professional. Inhaling asbestos fibers can cause mesothelioma, a rare and deadly cancer, as well as other asbestos-related diseases, such as lung cancer or asbestosis.

If you have an older home or office building and suspect it contains asbestos, do not try to remove asbestos-containing waste yourself. Contact your local hazardous waste center to find an asbestos recycling center or asbestos recycling plant near you.

Why is Asbestos Difficult to Recycle?

There are six different types of asbestos: chrysotile, crocidolite, amosite, anthophyllite, tremolite and actinolite.

Each of these types of asbestos were used as building materials for decades, before it became public knowledge that asbestos can cause deadly diseases like mesothelioma.

Because asbestos is so dangerous to handle due to the risk of exposure, asbestos recycling is a risky process. Asbestos can’t be dumped at general waste disposal sites like other types of waste.

Instead, asbestos must be made into solid waste first in order to be recycled. Unfortunately, not all types of asbestos-containing materials can be easily recycled.

Some forms of the material do not respond well to the processes necessary for recycling.

What Types of Asbestos Products Can Be Recycled?

All types of asbestos can be recycled when using the correct recycling process. However, all forms of asbestos and any amount of asbestos — no matter how small — may pose health concerns. This danger is why it’s so important to properly recycle asbestos products.

Friable vs. Non-Friable Asbestos

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, friable asbestos includes asbestos-containing materials that can be crumbled, pulverized, or reduced to powder with only hand pressure.

This is an important distinction, because asbestos fibers can be inhaled or ingested, which can lead to lung cancer, asbestosis, and mesothelioma.

Yet non-friable asbestos, which can’t be reduced to powder with hand pressure, but requires external and high amounts of pressure, is also dangerous.

Non-friable asbestos can still be crushed into asbestos powder, which is why it poses just as high a risk as friable asbestos.

Asbestos removal and disposal should be undertaken in any building where people may come into contact with asbestos products. Still, asbestos disposal and recycling should never be undertaken by anyone without the proper training and equipment.

Two workers in white hazmat suits work on a roof to remove asbestos shingles

Why Should You Recycle Asbestos?

Asbestos recycling is not an easy process, and costs are very high. That said, there are many important benefits.

Benefits of asbestos recycling include:

  • Asbestos recycling saves valuable landfill space, as the material won’t get sealed and buried.
  • The glass created from asbestos recycling can be used to make new safe products, such as those used in roads or construction.
  • After the asbestos recycling process, the material is no longer toxic, which reduces the chances of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases.
Workers in white hazmat suits work to contain asbestos-related particles

Steps for Recycling Asbestos

The process for recycling asbestos waste is an alternative to the “wrap and bury” method used for traditional asbestos abatement.

Disclaimer: It cannot be stressed enough that these steps must be carried out by licensed waste disposal professionals.

The steps involved in asbestos recycling include:

  1. Removing the asbestos-containing material and placing it first into double bagged 6 mm bags, then into a leak-tight container with proper labeling
  2. Washing the material in a hot base solution followed by acid to dissolve the asbestos fibers
  3. Melting and vitrifying the solution to create glass or ceramic material (the extremely high temperatures used in this process destroy the asbestos fibers)
  4. Recycling the glass or ceramic, now safe to handle

Asbestos Products That May Need Recycling

Asbestos was used widely from the 1930s to the 1970s to make thousands of products. Because it was cheap, versatile, and resistant to fire, asbestos was commonly used in the military, especially on U.S. Navy ships. It was also used in countless industries and in homes.

As asbestos-containing products are used or damaged, asbestos fibers are released into the air. Inhaling or swallowing these fibers can be deadly, especially later in life.

Important to note: asbestos is still in use today, which is why it’s crucial to know which everyday products you use that may contain asbestos.

Also, a product does not have to be made completely of asbestos to qualify as an asbestos product. Asbestos containing materials are those that contain more than 1% asbestos.

Did you know?

Asbestos was used so commonly that millions of people were exposed to the deadly material.

Asbestos Products in Vehicles

Due to its heat-resistance, asbestos was used in auto parts that involve constant friction. It is still used in many of these car parts today.

Asbestos could be found in these vehicle products:

  • Brake pads and linings
  • Clutch linings
  • Fume hoods
  • Heat seals
  • Hood liners
  • Transmission plates

Asbestos-Containing Materials in U.S. Navy Ships

Every U.S. Navy ship built before the 1980s contained asbestos to reduce the risk of fires. Neither the U.S. military nor the general public knew asbestos was dangerous, as asbestos product manufacturers hid the deadly truth for decades.

Asbestos was considered perfect for insulation in steam pipes and fuel lines. Since asbestos is non-conductive, it was used to coat miles of electrical cables.

Asbestos could be found in these vehicle products:

  • Cement powder and mortar mix
  • Deck and floor tiles
  • Electrical cables and coatings
  • Fuel lines
  • Gaskets
  • Insulation
  • Meters
  • Pumps and hydraulics
  • Paint and wallboard
  • Sealants and adhesives
  • Soundproofing materials
  • Steam pipes
  • Valves

Non-military ships made before the 1980s also contained many asbestos-based products.

Today, Navy ships are no longer made with asbestos-containing products.

Asbestos Products in Homes & Buildings

Before regulations on asbestos, it was commonly used in the construction of buildings and homes as insulation. This not only means that carpenters and construction workers may have been exposed to asbestos, but also that many homes contain asbestos materials.

Because it is fireproof, asbestos was used in:

  • Cement
  • Drywall
  • Floors
  • Heating equipment
  • Insulation
  • Paint
  • Roofing shingles
  • Siding
  • Tiles

There is no safe level of asbestos exposure, and even a single fiber can cause mesothelioma or other illnesses decades later. For this reason, homeowners and building owners should have their homes or buildings tested to find out if asbestos is present.

Tips for Testing Your Home for Asbestos

Testing for asbestos in your home can help reduce the chances of exposure. Although asbestos fibers are virtually harmless if left alone, once they are disturbed, they enter the air and can be easily inhaled or ingested. Then, they can cause decades of irritation and even cancer later on.

You may want to get your property tested for asbestos if:

  • You’re carrying out a DIY remodeling project
  • A natural or manmade disaster disturbed the building’s structure
  • The structure was built before 1980
  • You notice crumbled, worn, or broken asbestos-containing materials

Once you know whether the toxic mineral is in your home, removal and possibly even asbestos recycling may be required. Please note, however, asbestos testing and abatement MUST be performed by a professional.

Here are a few other things to remember if you believe your home may contain asbestos.

Avoid Damaged Asbestos

Don’t go into any part of your home that contains damaged asbestos-based products. If you aren’t sure if asbestos is present, leave the area alone and treat it as though it is.

Don’t Use At-Home Testing Kits

At-home testing kits allow you to take a sample and send it to a lab to test for asbestos. That said, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends using accredited professionals to test for asbestos.

The main reason for not using at-home kits is that most untrained people are unable to tell if something may contain asbestos. A trained professional, however, knows how to test areas without disturbing the asbestos fibers, which could worsen contamination.

Don’t Remove Asbestos Yourself

While it is legal to remove asbestos waste materials from your home in some states, you may put yourself at risk of exposure without proper training. It is best to not attempt removal or asbestos recycling under any circumstances.

A worker in a white hazmat suit stands on a cream-colored scaffolding and works to remove asbestos from the side of a building

Removing Asbestos From Your Home

If asbestos recycling or removal is required for your home, there are generally two types of asbestos professionals you may need.

  1. Asbestos Inspectors: Those who inspect homes and buildings to assess the likelihood of asbestos, take samples, and advise on corrections needed
  2. Asbestos Contractors: Those who make repairs or handle asbestos removal

Once you know whether the toxic mineral is in your home, removal and possibly even asbestos recycling may be required. Please note, however, asbestos testing and abatement MUST be performed by a professional.

Two workers in white hazmat suits work to remove brown asbestos shingles from a roof

Tips for Working With Asbestos Professionals

While working with a professional on asbestos recycling or removal projects, there are several things to consider.

Some tips to keep in mind include:

  • Use an accredited asbestos inspector
  • Have any suspicious materials tested by a laboratory
  • Fill out a construction and demolition waste acceptance form
  • Be sure you can access the test results

Difference Between Asbestos Recycling & Abatement

Asbestos abatement is the sealing and removal of asbestos-based products. It is currently much more common than asbestos recycling.

Recycling asbestos costs three times as much as standard removal. Contractors also need additional approval from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) if they want to pursue asbestos recycling, making the process more complex.

Laws on Asbestos Removal and Disposal

As the dangers of asbestos-containing products became widely known, the U.S. government began passing laws to ensure the mineral would be properly removed and disposed of.

Some laws dictating asbestos use and removal include:

  • Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA)
  • Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA)
  • National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP)

Although asbestos laws and regulations are common, they are still widely debated.

Is Asbestos Still in Use?
Short Answer: Yes

Despite the health risks that asbestos exposure is known to cause, there is not a full ban on asbestos, even today.

In 1989, the EPA made a final ruling on the Asbestos Ban and Phase-Out Rule, banning most asbestos-containing products. However, the regulation was overturned in 1991, with dozens of products still manufactured today.

Staying Safe During Asbestos Recycling

The main thing to remember about asbestos recycling or removal is to never attempt it yourself. The material is deadly, and there is no safe level of exposure.

Some other important things to remember include:

  • Asbestos recycling turns dangerous asbestos fibers into a harmless glass, but it is not yet common due to cost.
  • Always go to a professional for asbestos recycling or removal.
  • Use caution and assume asbestos is present anywhere it is suspected. Inhaled asbestos fibers cannot be expelled from the body, causing health problems, such as the deadly cancer mesothelioma.
  • Although asbestos is still not banned in the United States, it is highly restricted, and its use and removal are closely regulated.