refrigerator recycling processThere comes a time in every fridge’s life when it just cannot go on. Maybe the electrical system is fried, or the compressor has just given up. Whatever the reason, all that moldy food gets thrown away, and a new fridge comes in to take its place. But, what happens to that old fridge when its time has passed? As with many environmental regulations in the U.S., the disposal of refrigerators is governed by a mix of federal, state and local laws that can make it challenging for consumers to ensure that their refrigerators meet a green end.

The numbers

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that around 9 million refrigerators/freezers are thrown out in the U.S. every year. Around 90% of those refrigerators will end up in some type of recycling program, but the ultimate fate of all the bits and pieces that make up a refrigerator will depend on how it is recycled.

Federal disposal laws

Refrigerators contain a number of nasty chemicals whose disposal is regulated by the federal government. Chief among these are refrigerants, the chemicals that do the job of cooling the air inside a fridge or freezer. Because the most common refrigerants — CFCs in fridges built before 1995, and HFCs in later models — are well-known ozone-depleting substances and greenhouse gases, they must be collected and returned to EPA-approved disposal sites whenever a fridge is going to be destroyed, landfilled or recycled. Other hazardous components such as oil, mercury and PCBs must also be handled according to EPA specifications. There are no federal regulations that cover disposal of the rest of the refrigerator. Generally, when fridges are recycled, the scrap metal is collected for reuse, while the plastic, glass and insulating foam end up in landfills. Because this insulating foam is made from CFCs and HFCs, shredding and disposing of the foams releases large amounts of these harmful gases into the atmosphere.

State and local laws

State and local governments can implement their own regulations that meet or exceed the basic federal regulations, which makes it easier to responsibly dispose of fridges in some places than in others. For example, many states, including Oregon, Vermont and Illinois, require large appliances like refrigerators be recycled, and California creates extra regulatory oversight by requiring that anyone handling the disposal of major appliances be certified by the state Department of Toxic Substances Control as a Certified Appliance Recycler. Landfilling of refrigerators is often prohibited under state and local law, but again, this depends on the location. If you are interested in finding out more information about regulations in your area, check with your state EPA office or your city waste management department.

The RAD program

The EPA’s Responsible Appliance Disposal (RAD) program has been working since 2006 to bring together government agencies, manufacturers and retailers to ensure that refrigerators, freezers and dehumidifiers are handled properly. Currently, RAD partners with Sears, Best Buy, The Home Depot and Appliance Smart Factory Outlet to ensure that all refrigerators collected for recycling are sent to facilities that recover as much material as possible and also properly dispose of all hazardous materials, including insulating foam. This program is voluntary and not legally mandated, and currently only two states, New York and West Virginia, are participating.

Choosing a recycling program

Of course, compliance with these laws is never guaranteed, which is why it is so important for consumers to do their research before sending refrigerators off to be dismantled. Large retail programs, particularly those affiliated with RAD, are a good choice, and many will pick up old appliances for recycling even when customers have not purchased new ones (this may incur a small fee). Those without access to these programs can check with local waste management departments or scrap metal companies to find an appliance recycler that is certified to handle refrigerants and other hazardous material. When possible, it is best to choose programs that recycle the entire fridge, including the insulating foam, plastic and glass. These types of programs can be harder to find, but fortunately their numbers are growing every year.