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Refrigerator Recycling: A Tale of Two Fridges

EOSClimate
EOSClimate | Monday May 20th, 2013 | 4 Comments

Read more in this series

TriplePundit’s comprehensive coverage of refrigerants’ link to climate change has continued with recent posts by Andrew Burger on A/C refrigerant standards and the race to find low-GWP refrigerants.

Last fall, the first phase of our series on the Refrigerant Revolution® explored the challenge in depth, looking at the history, policy backdrop, key issues including R-22 phase-out, and implications for future sustainability. We continue with a series of posts focusing on multi-sector solutions to this global environmental challenge.

Common coolers face an uncertain end.

Common coolers face an uncertain end.

A tale of two fridges

After years of quiet, dedicated service in our homes, more than 9.4 million fridges and freezers reach the end of their useful life in the U.S. each year.

Every wonder what happens to these unsung heroes of modern life?

First, we should point out that refrigerators and freezers are unique from other appliances and household items because they contain refrigerants and blowing agents, which are powerful greenhouse gases. They also contain polyurethane foam, another GHG contributor. Depending on the type of refrigerant and blowing agent, a single refrigerator can contain the climate equivalent of driving an SUV for an entire year and up to 8 cubic feet of foam.

In the U.S., most refrigerators take one of two paths once leaving our kitchen or garage. The “common cooler” ends up heading directly to a metal scrapyard where its refrigerant and insulation foam are rarely dealt with properly. Conversely, the “lucky fridges,” like those Triple Pundit profiled  last September, are properly de-manufactured in accordance with EPA’s Responsible Appliance Disposal (RAD) program.

The common cooler

Of the more than 9 million fridges and freezers discarded each year in the U.S., approximately 10 percent are managed under EPA’s Responsible Appliance Disposal (RAD) partnership. The remainder are either resold into the after-market, or end up in landfills or metal scrapyards, where the focus is on extracting value from the scrap metal, and where recovery of the refrigerants, while required by law, is not guaranteed.

Federal regulations require that the refrigerant first be recovered from discarded equipment, but lack of oversight and transparency in the value chain means proper recovery is highly unlikely. “Cutting the line,” i.e., venting the refrigerant before the appliance arrives at the refrigerator recycling facility is, unfortunately, a common practice before your beloved old fridge is crushed for scrap metal. Intentional venting of refrigerant carries steep fines under the Clean Air Act, but the risk of getting caught is slim. In fact, venting is so widespread and enforcement so rare, that there are even instructions on the practice. The result is tens of millions of metric tons of CO2-equivalent is released into the atmosphere annually in the U.S. from common coolers.

A rare enforcement case in Portland, Oregon illustrates the common practice and also the exposure and risk related to supply chain integrity.

In addition, the polyurethane foam insulation is typically shredded along with the rest of the unit, and then landfilled.  Approximately 65 million cubic feet of foam are buried in landfills each year in the U.S. alone. For some perspective on that volume, this equates to one Empire State building completely buried beneath ground and a second buried to the 76th floor!

Lucky fridges await refrigerator recycling at JACO

Lucky fridges await recycling at JACO

The lucky ones

Through a combination of utility energy efficiency incentives, technological advances, business and logistics innovations and a government-industry partnership (EPA RAD), over 800,000 discarded refrigerators and freezers encounter a better, more sustainable outcome: complete de-manufacturing into component materials.

With 28 refrigerator recycling centers serving 28 states, JACO Environmental is responsible for the majority of RAD compliant units in the U.S. At JACO, lucky fridges are completely de-manufactured, refrigerants are recovered; and foam and blowing agents are recovered and either destroyed or returned as raw materials to the manufacturing ecosystem. Metal, glass and plastics are also recovered and recycled, resulting in less than a shoebox’s worth of material being sent to the landfill per lucky fridge.

Unfortunately for the planet, common coolers are, indeed, common, and lucky fridges are few and far between. Despite successes under RAD, the 800,000 units moving through the program represent a drop in the bucket compared to more than 9 million appliances discarded each year. So what can be done?

When it’s time to part ways with your trusty refrigerator, consider its next stage of life. Ask your retailer, manufacturer or hauler about their program for refrigerator end-of-life and make sure that they have visibility and control of their supply chain.

Signs of progress

RecycleBank and JACO Environmental, in conjunction with New Jersey Clean Energy Program and Sears, recently piloted a program to engage consumers at the point of purchase regarding the path of their trusty old fridge in its “next life.”  The program assures stakeholders of responsible appliance disposal to conform to EPA RAD requirements.

Time for a revolution

Cool change on the horizon

Cool change on the horizon

EOS Climate, JACOHudson Technologies and other organizations spearheading the Refrigerant Revolution® recognize refrigerants as valuable assets. The approach is changing the way refrigerants are managed throughout their lifecycle, improving operational efficiency, protecting organizations from regulatory and reputational risk, and facilitating the transition to a more sustainable future. For the first time, companies will know the full extent of their environmental impact relative to refrigerant use and be able to take proactive steps to manage these critical inventories like other parts of their supply chain.

Over the last three years, EOS has worked closely with JACO to maximize the rate and efficiency of refrigerant recovery nationwide. In concert with JACO’s managers, Todd English, EOS Climate’s VP of Operations, and EOS co-founder, developed operational procedures and quantification tools for all 28 locations. These efforts have resulted in best-in-class refrigerant recovery preventing significant GHG emissions for appliances at end of life.

The potential impact of this new approach is substantial. Based on data from the U.S. EPA and the California EPA, annual emissions of refrigerants in the U.S. equal approximately 250 million tons of CO2* which is the equivalent emissions from 44 million cars, or from power use by 28 million homes. Solving the problem may start by telling a “new tale” with your old fridge.

“And a beautiful world we live in, when it is possible, and when many other such things are possible, and not only possible, but done– done, see you! — under that sky there, every day.”

– Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Ed Note:  TriplePundit’s Nick Aster took a trip to JACO’s facility in Hayward, CA, to learn first hand how refrigerators are recycled.  Please enjoy the short video below!


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  • EcoFerris

    Thanks for the info! I never thought about how unique refrigerator disposal should be. Not only will I send my current (dying) fridge to a sustainable grave, I will reference this post and JACO Env’s services in an upcoming post about Remodeling Waste on http://blog.provensustainable.com/.

  • Dave Shires

    I’m actually stunned that less than 10% of fridges in the US are being properly dealt with – one can only imagine how bad it is outside the US. Glad to see market solutions in effect, but can’t the government play a more active roll? I mean, would fining the dickens out of people who fail to properly account for their old fridges help?

  • Anderson

    So what’s in it for the consumer to make sure this is done right? Or re-phrased, what system is missing that keeps this from being easy?