In December, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump used his aerosol hairspray to make a point about his disdain for efforts to curb global warming. “They say ‘Don’t use hairspray, it’s bad for the ozone,” the notoriously quaffed candidate said.
Trouble is, hairspray does not in fact harm the ozone. And while it may not be surprising to learn that a candidate for office doesn’t understand the science, Trump’s statement is emblematic of a bigger problem: The American public simply doesn’t understand aerosol.
Although decades have passed since aerosol products posed any threat to the ozone layer, manufacturers of aerosol products face particularly stubborn obstacles to educating the public.
“No one is ever able to tell you what it is they think is harmful in aerosols,” said Sean Fitzgerald, chairman of the Consumer Aerosol Products Council (CAPCO). “They just have a feeling that something is.”
The industry dedicates enormous resources to taking on that misunderstanding, and in doing so, to helping the environment. In the lead up to Earth Day (April 22), the Consumer Specialty Product Association (CSPA) and CAPCO prepared for their annual education efforts, in which they try to convince consumers to recycle their aerosol cans. Last year, they published an aerosol recycling guide.
The public’s unease about aerosol products began in the ’70s, when scientists discovered a potential link between chemicals used in the cans and the depletion of the ozone layer. These chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were initially used as propellants in aerosol cans, and they were also commonly used in refrigerators and air conditioning systems. They were very popular, largely because they were non-toxic and non-flammable.
However, when CFCs’ possible danger to the environment was discovered, aerosol product manufacturers voluntarily began to phase out their use and search for alternatives. Soon the United States government took action as well, authorizing the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate CFCs. Eventually the 1987 Montreal Protocol, an international treaty, became the basis of global CFC phaseout.
The industry invested billions of dollars in switching away from CFC propellants, and the investment produced astonishing environmental results. The Montreal Protocol was ultimately successful, and the Antarctic Upper Ozone began to slowly heal. Now, most aerosol product propellants use a combination of butane and propane natural gases, but the industry is constantly experimenting with other environmentally safe alternatives. Despite the massive effort of the aerosol can industry, though, most Americans still believe that aerosols contain CFCs.
“If people hear two terms together like ‘aerosol’ and ‘CFC,’ they think they are associated,” said Douglas Fratz, senior science fellow from the Consumer Specialty Products Association (CSPA), which represents the aerosol product industry. “Even if they don’t remember why.”
In the ’90s, CSPA recognized the need to educate the public about aerosols, and began using the nonprofit CAPCO as the education arm of the industry. CAPCO’s primary objective was to show the country that aerosols no longer contained CFCs. According to Fratz, early consumer surveys conducted by CAPCO showed systematic misunderstanding of the term “aerosol.” Many survey respondents, he said, would claim they don’t use aerosol without realizing that they used a wide range of them. The average consumer might not realize that everything from foaming bathroom cleaners to shaving cream or whipped cream was an aerosol product.
“People certainly understand the issue better than they did in the eighties, but it would always come back up,” said Fratz. “Sometimes the people who think they are against aerosol products actually end up using quite a lot of [them].”
The term “aerosol” refers to small liquid or solid particles suspended in a gas. This can include dust or smog, and in fact, most aerosol is naturally occurring. Aerosol products are human-made and use aerosol as a means of storage and delivery. For instance, spray paint is small paint particles suspended in gas propellant, which allows it to be delivered quickly and accurately.
According to Franz, educating the public about aerosols and CFCs likely won’t ever be completely effective. Instead, CAPCO and CPSA focus on fixing errors as they pop up, such as Donald Trump’s statements. Both organizations sent the Trump campaign messages correcting his statements and released related blog posts on their sites.
Both Franz and Fitzgerald emphasized the importance of environmentalism for their industry. Because of this, a large part of CAPCO’s educational material focuses on recycling. Like other metal cans, aerosol cans are infinitely recyclable. The ability of these metals to be used indefinitely is well-known by consumers of typical canned foods, but interestingly that knowledge seems to stop short of aerosol cans.
“We’re all trying to be good citizens and good partners,” said Fitzgerald. “We all want to reduce our carbon footprint.”