Air conditioners are a necessity in some parts of the country. In others, they are more of a luxury for really hot days. But no matter where you live, this important fact holds true: It is very important to recycle air conditioners. The refrigerant in older air conditioners is one of the major things destroying the ozone layer, and all refrigerants are potent greenhouse gases.
Air conditioners, as well as refrigerators and freezers that contain refrigerant, are classified as hazardous waste and cannot be thrown in the trash. As a result, there are typically plenty of recycling options for them.
Responsibly removing and recycling the refrigerant from air conditioners is not easy, so expect to pay for air conditioner recycling in most cases. However, an increasing number of utilities are offering cash incentives to encourage people to recycle old air conditioners and buy new, energy efficient ones. Depending on where you live you may actually be able to make some money from your old air conditioner.
What are air conditioners made of?
An air conditioner, whether it is a small window unit or a larger HVAC unit, contains a combination of plastic and metal. It also contains refrigerant, the thing that cools the air. Older machines contain refrigerants made with chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) or hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), both of which are considered ozone-depleting gases. Newer air conditioners use hydrofluorcarbons (HFCs), which are not ozone-depleting. However, they are still bad for the environment, because they are greenhouse gases.
When you dispose of your unwanted air conditioner, the recycling company will begin its process by sucking out the gases and placing them in tanks. In some cases, the gases can be cleaned and sold to people who recharge air conditioners that have lost their coolant. Other recyclers simply pay a fee to send the refrigerants to a company that will incinerate them (this is done at an extremely high temperature so none of the harmful components can escape). From there, the recycling company will separate out the different metal components and send them to a metal recycler.
How to recycle an air conditioner
When a small air conditioner finally reaches the end of its usable life, the easiest place to take it may be your local solid waste management company. These facilities should provide a place to recycle refrigerant-containing machines. Check with them to determine their policy. In East Hanover, New Jersey, residents can drop air conditioners at the township’s Recycling Depot & Convenience Center. In Arlington, Virginia, people can place their air conditioners at the curb and schedule a pickup.
There are plenty of private companies that will take air conditioners and recycle them. RML Metals Recycling in Houston is one example.
In some communities your utility may pay you to recycle an old air conditioner. This is the case in places like Hughesville, Maryland, which is served by the Southern Maryland Energy Cooperative
. They give homeowners with active accounts $50 to recycle old refrigerators and freezers and will kick in $25 extra for a working air conditioner. The idea is your new air conditioner will be more energy efficient than your old one, which will help you (and the utility) decrease energy consumption.
If your home air conditioner is part of a larger HVAC unit and must be removed by a professional, make sure that company is committed to environmental sustainability and responsible recycling. Refrigerant can be removed for recycling or destruction, but there are plenty of dodgy folks out there who will simply cut into the refrigerant lines and release the gas into the atmosphere. This practice is illegal and carries a hefty fine, but it is tough to catch people in the act.
To find a company that will capture the refrigerant and dispose of it properly, make sure your contractor is licensed and ask them how he or she disposes of the refrigerant. If he or she does not remove and recycle it him or herself (which is likely; most small outfits are not set up to do that), find out who does and what their policies on disposal are.
How to efficiently run your air conditioner
There are lots of things you can do to make sure you do not have to run your air conditioner all the time, which will save electricity and keep your air conditioner functioning longer. Make sure the house is properly insulated, and block the sun’s hottest rays with good curtains or outdoor plantings. Keep your air conditioner functioning at its best by having it serviced by a licensed technician regularly and replacing air filters as directed by your operator’s manual.
If you need a new air conditioner, the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy recommends looking for one with a high SEER level (which stands for “seasonal energy efficiency level”). The higher the SEER, they report, the more effective your air conditioner will be. People in hot, dry climates should also look for machines with a high EER. Energy Star
, which “helps businesses and individuals save money and protect our climate through superior energy efficiency,” has a list
of the most efficient air conditioners and heat pumps available in 2014. Some local governments offer incentive programs to help offset the cost of new, energy efficient air conditioners. To find out if anyone in your community offers incentives, visit this page of the Energy Star website