RECYCLING refrigerators — especially those made more than 15 years ago — is a tricky job.
The coolant in old appliances (now banned from newer versions) can cause serious trouble, warming the atmosphere and depleting the ozone layer.
Regulations forbid the release of liquid refrigerants during disposal. But what if the refrigerant was not in the cooling system, but stored up in the old foam used for insulation? The insulation in older machines is full of a gassy refrigerant that can waft away during dismantling and continue to diffuse later when the foam is shredded and sitting in a landfill.
Now a few American companies have embarked on voluntary recycling programs that go beyond what many local governments do when a resident leaves an old refrigerator on the curb for pickup. The companies use ingenious robotic systems to squeeze out almost all of the coolant in refrigerators — including the hard-to-reach coolant in the foam — before they head for the landfill.
Appliance Recycling Centers of America, a company based in Minneapolis with a chain of recycling depots, recently unveiled a 40-foot-tall behemoth that dismantles refrigerators the environmental way, extracting the coolant until only 0.2 percent is left.
The machine, installed in Philadelphia, has a panoply of shredders, magnets, chutes and sluices worthy of a green Willy Wonka. Send a refrigerator down the conveyor belt of this unit and it is transformed into neat piles of plastic and metal that can be recycled rather than buried in a landfill. The foam insulation is turned into pellets that can be used as fuel or for other products.
About a third of the coolant is recovered from the compressor and about 70 percent from the foam insulation, said Peter Hessler, managing director of Untha Recycling Technology, a company in Karlstadt, Germany, that created the new recycling system.
The entire mechanical dismantling takes about a minute, said Jack Cameron, chief executive of Appliance Recycling Centers of America and of ApplianceSmart, a chain of appliance stores. The system costs about $5.5 million and can tackle about 150,000 used refrigerators a year, he said.
The capital investment for the system was possible, Mr. Cameron said, because the recycling company has a six-year contract with General Electric. G.E. delivers new appliances and hauls the old ones away in 12 Northeastern and mid-Atlantic states for Home Depot. G.E. is supplying the recycler with all of those returns.
Elaborate refrigerator recycling systems like Untha’s are rare in the United States but not in Europe, which has strict controls against the release of refrigerants. The dismantling of appliances in the Untha system takes place in a vacuum so that the gases, commonly known as freons, CFCs or chlorofluorocarbons, cannot escape into the atmosphere.
The system Untha installed in Philadelphia had to be scaled up for American refrigerators. “The U.S. refrigerators are three times the size of European ones,” Mr. Hessler said.
First refrigerators go through two Dumpster-size shredders placed end to end. The foam insulation is handled in a separate step. “We crack the cell matrix of the foam by heating it up in a pelletizer” and extracting the remaining coolants, he said.
Another robotic system that captures refrigerants down to the last few drops is at the Stow, Ohio, location of JACO Environmental. Michael Dunham, director of energy and environmental programs, said the system separates more than 95 percent of the materials used to manufacture the old appliances and sends them to be made into other products. The system, which is portable, was manufactured by SEG of Mettlach, Germany.
Many of these old refrigerators are still chugging along, Mr. Dunham said. JACO picked up about 480,000 refrigerators for recycling last year, with an average age of 21 years. “And the old ones stored away in garages and basements aren’t getting any younger,” he said. The company, which participates in a voluntary program to bag and burn old insulating foam in refrigerators, expects to receive a comparable volume of old refrigerators during the next decade.
In the future, financial incentives may encourage the capture and destruction of refrigerants. To reduce greenhouse gas emissions, California is completing a cap-and-trade regulation, set to start in 2012, that includes credit for pre-1995 refrigerants said Bart Croes, chief of the Research Division at the Air Resources Board, which will oversee the program.
“Companies can use credits from the proper destruction of refrigerants to cover part of their annual emissions,” said Gary Gero, president of Climate Action Reserve in Los Angeles, which certifies projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and issues offset credits.
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