Nearly every home in America has at least one refrigerator. When it comes time to recycle the appliance (which needs to be done, on average, every 14 years), what are your options?
It is very important to recycle refrigerators. All of them contain refrigerants that are potent greenhouse gases. The refrigerants in older machines can cause serious damage to the ozone layer. Because of this, refrigerators (as well as freezers and air conditioners) are considered hazardous waste and cannot be thrown away – even if you could fit them in your trash can.
The hazardous waste classification means almost every community will have a place to recycle refrigerators. If you are lucky, the company that sells you a new refrigerator will take your old one away. If not, check with your local solid waste district to see what options they offer. You can also contact your utility to see if they offer cash incentives to people disposing of old refrigerators. Believe it or not, you may be able to make some money off that hunk of junk.
What are refrigerators made of?
Refrigerators are made almost entirely of metal and plastic. Within the giant cooling case is a combination of steel, copper and aluminum – all highly recyclable. The shelves and drawers inside the refrigerator are made with more metal, plastic and/or glass. There is also some polyurethane foam in refrigerators that acts as insulation.
Deep inside your refrigerator is a compressor that holds the refrigerant, which is the substance that keeps your refrigerator cool. Interestingly, it does this not by giving off cold air, but by absorbing heat. Older machines contain refrigerants made with chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) or hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), both of which are considered ozone-depleting gases. Newer refrigerators use materials that are not ozone-depleting. However, newer refrigerants are still bad for the environment because they are greenhouse gases.
There is also a small motor in your refrigerator that runs a fan meant to distribute cold air. The motor contains a small amount of oil to help keep it running correctly. Very old machines may have small amounts of PCBs and mercury, but these materials have not been used in refrigerators for a long time.
How do refrigerators get recycled?
The refrigerator recycling process begins by removing the refrigerant and placing it in a tank. In some cases the refrigerant can be cleaned and sold to people who recharge refrigerators and car air conditioners that have lost their coolant. Other recyclers pay 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. Some places have ways to recycle the plastic and glass, but these materials are difficult to find a market for, so they often end up in the trash.
The insulation probably also goes in the trash, which is somewhat controversial. The foam inside refrigerators contains CFCs, the ozone-depleting gas now banned from refrigeration units. If the foam gets crushed or broken, it can release those CFCs. However, since there are very few ways to recycle the foam, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency allows recycling companies to put it in the trash without penalty. If you can choose which recycling company gets your appliance when you are ready to dispose of it, you might want to ask if they have a way to recycle the foam.
How to recycle refrigerators
Many companies that sell refrigerators will take your old one away when they deliver the new one. Examples include Best Buy, Sears and Home Depot. All do the recycling themselves or get your appliance to a recycling company.
It is possible your utility company wants your old appliance. The idea behind the increasingly popular incentive programs offered by utility companies is that your new refrigerator will be much more energy efficient than your old one. This will help you (and the utility) decrease energy consumption. Duke Energy in North Carolina, ConEdison in New York and Idaho Power in Boise are examples of utilities that pay customers between $30 and $50 for their old refrigerators.
If you need to dispose of your old appliance yourself, your local solid waste management company must provide you with a place to take it. Check with them to learn more about your options. In Marietta, Georgia residents can drop off refrigerators at the county recycling center every day. In Westchester County, New York residents much schedule an appointment to bring in an old refrigerator.
In some cases the solid waste district may partner with a private company to take unwanted or broken refrigerators, or refer you to several potential recyclers. Ask those companies if they are licensed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to remove refrigerants and what they do with them. If they do not remove and recycle the refrigerant themselves (which is likely; most small outfits are not set up to do that), find out who does it and what their disposal policies are. Do not forget to ask them if they can recycle the foam insulation if this is important to you.
How to reuse your refrigerator
Even older refrigerators can fetch a pretty penny on the open market. As a result, there are lots of companies that take old refrigerators, fix them and resell them. Do a Google search for appliance repair businesses near you or ask friends from referrals.