Rising number of gas canisters alarms sector

EXCLUSIVE: Waste and recycling companies are growing increasingly concerned about a rise in the number of gas canisters appearing in waste and recycling streams as they can explode when processed.

MRF operators have reported seeing a spike in the number of gas canisters received over the past few months

This includes gas canisters used for barbeques and camping stoves, as well as a growing “wave” of medium-sized canisters mainly used to hold nitrous oxide.

Both operators of materials recycling facilities (MRFs) and energy from waste (EfW) plants have voiced concerns and said the rising number of canisters is posing a health and safety risk as well as increasing carbon emissions at EfW plants.

There is concern at material recycling facilities (MRFs) where manual sorting is needed that a canister incident could cause a fatality if not addressed.

Many waste companies have told letsrecycle.com that in recent months as well as this summer they have seen a huge spike in the number of canisters in waste streams, with some putting it down to a rising number of social events such as BBQs and festivals post-pandemic.

Most local authorities are understood to advise that canisters should be to be taken to a household waste and recycling centre (HWRC) where advice should be sought on proper disposal.

Nitrous oxide

While the summer months always see canisters used for barbeques increasing, this has been higher than normal this year.

One real growing issue however is the larger nitrous oxide containers, weighing around 2KG.

In the last nine months or so MRF operators have reported that these have been growing massively. Some operators have said they have seen up to 50 of these a day since the turn of the year, whereas before they were rare.

Some canisters have a logo which indicates they can be recycled, so they wrongly end up in the recycling stream

Others have reported seeing upwards of 1400 of them a month.

Nitrous oxide is mainly used in the hospitality industry for whipped cream and certain soft drinks. However, in recent years, there has also been growing use of what’s been described as ‘hippy crack’, where the gas is installed into small canisters, normally placed into balloons, and inhaled.

However, while these smaller, silver, canisters can be an explosion risk if they find their way into MRFs, the new influx of these large-scale cylinders are causing a much bigger problem. On Amazon, for example, a pack of six is available to buy for £149.99.

The sale of nitrous oxide for its psychoactive effects was made illegal after the Psychoactive Substances Act in 2016, but it is not currently a crime to be caught in possession of the gas.

‘Sharp rise’

One of the companies that sees canisters coming in to its MRF is London-based Bywaters. A spokesperson explained that “not only are they not recyclable at the MRF, but they cause a risk coming through the process.”

This was echoed by a number of other MRF operators across the UK. While pickers are often able to pull out the material, they can cause problems with machinery, or even explode, if they are missed and pass through a plant.

There has been significant increase in the number of pressurised nitrous oxide canisters

  • Biffa spokesperson

A spokesperson for Biffa, one of the largest sorters in the UK, explained: “Over the past few months there has been a significant increase in the number of pressurised 2kg nitrous oxide canisters entering our waste streams, with the potential to cause injuries if pierced.

“Unlike other pressurised gas canisters that can be returned to the supplier, these food grade products cannot be reused and should be disposed of through commercial waste collection rather than domestic dry mixed recycling.

“Recycling can only be completed by specialised waste companies who have the facilities to treat them safely.”

And, Cory – which operates a large MRF in Wandsworth, London – also confirmed that the company has been receiving more of these than usual, and explained how they are removed.

Describing the disposal process, a spokesperson told letsrecycle.com: “When they come in, we isolate them, secure them, weigh them and take them to the civic amenities site where they have a collection point for them. Then they’re collected.”

General waste

Additionally, Viridor has raised the alarm regarding the gas canisters used during camping and barbeque season entering an EfW facility in the residual waste stream.

Dr Tim Rotheray, the company’s director of ESG, explained: “As the season is in full swing, the waste management sector sees an increasing number of gas bottles being thrown out as general waste. Even if they are empty, these gas bottles explode when they go through an EfW facility.”

Dr Rotheray from Viridor warns of risks associated with the pressurised canisters

According to Dr Rotheray, “the explosion causes a risk to both local air pollution and the health and safety of those who make sure our bins are taken away and processed safely every day”.

In its efforts to tackle the issue, Viridor has taken the step to “actively trial artificial intelligence to detect gas bottles in the waste so that we can extract them before they cause harm”.

“But it would be far easier if we all ensure that we continued recycling as we know we can. Separating out recycling and preventing it from going to non-recyclable waste streams,” Dr Rotheray continued, adding that keeping gas bottles our will help air quality, reduce emissions, and protect those who treat our waste.

He concluded: “The simplest acts like recycling really do make a big difference.”

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