Inside GE's Unbelievable Recycling Plant

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When you buy a refrigerator, technicians usually come to your home, install the new appliance and haul the old one away – supposedly for recycling. But have you ever wondered where your appliances really go?

About 40 percent of the refrigerators, stoves and other appliances collected by retailers each year are resold to other customers at discounted prices.

Reusing these appliances may sound like a good idea, but in many cases resale only means keeping inefficient, energy-sucking models in American homes.

Even retailers that skip resale have limited options when it comes to appliance recycling. Appliances that aren’t resold are sent to recycling facilities that typically only salvage steel, aluminum and other scrap metals. The remaining plastics are ground up and sent to a landfill.

For each old refrigerator processed in this manner, approximately 55 pounds of shredded polyurethane foam and other plastic-based materials are sent to American landfills.

But proponents of a state-of-the-art appliance recycling technology are planning to change all that.

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Operators of a newly-modified recycling facility in Philadelphia fill two of these bins every day with steel recovered from old appliances. Photo: Mary Mazzoni, Earth911

The AAP plant

General Electric, Appliance Recycling Centers of America (ARCA) and the EPA have teamed up to modify ARCA Advanced Processing’s (AAP) regional recycling center in Philadelphia and shrink the footprint of appliance recycling.

In addition to scrap metals, the AAP recycling center can now salvage almost all plastics from recycled refrigerators, thanks to the addition of a cutting-edge UNTHA Recycling Technology (URT) system.

By using URT – a technology developed in Germany and successfully utilized in Europe, South America and Asia – recyclers can reduce the typical landfill waste of a refrigerator by approximately 85 percent by weight.

“When an appliance is taken away for recycling, there’s always a question of where all that stuff goes,” said Brian Conners, president and chief operating officer of ARCA Advanced Processing. “At this plant, we can not only tell you exactly where it goes but also exactly what the materials were used to make.”

But the system goes beyond reducing plastic waste. It also dramatically reduces greenhouse gas (GHG) and ozone-depleting substance (ODS) emissions.

Before URT, workers at the AAP facility had to manually strip insulating foam from refrigerators by hand, releasing hazardous emissions and drastically slowing down the recycling process.

The new technology can mechanically remove all pieces of a refrigerator in a completely sealed space – meaning more materials salvaged and far fewer tons of carbon emissions.

The modified plant is a partner with the EPA’s Responsible Appliance Disposal (RAD) program, which aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with appliance disposal.

The plant will accept appliances from 12 states in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast regions, thanks in part to a partnership with Home Depot – which will send all the old appliances it removes from homes to the plant for recycling.

The plant, which is the first URT system to operate in North America and the largest URT facility in the world, is expected to recycle more than 150,000 refrigerators and 750,000 other appliances in its first year alone.

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Brian Conners, president and chief operating officer for AAP, stands in front of a buffer silo – the part of the URT system that processes polyurethane foam. Photo: Mary Mazzoni, Earth911

How it works

Fridges are loaded one-by-one onto a conveyer belt, where they are transported through a series of locked gates to ensure no gas can escape. The plant can process approximately one refrigerator per minute.

Once inside the 40-foot system, refrigerators are shredded and separated. Plastics, metals and foams all end up in different areas of the facility, where they are processed for recycling.

The real game-changer of the $5.5 million system is its ability to efficiently process polyurethane insulation.

Insulating foams are transported through a pelletizing press – similar to machines used to make rabbit food pellets – and greenhouse gases are collected and pumped into a condenser, which turns them into liquids.

Once gases are condensed, they can be safely transferred to destruction facilities. Each refrigerator yields about one pound of liquefied refrigerants and foam blowing agents, which amounts to the CO2-equivalent of running 200 gallons of gasoline through your car.

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These pellets, created from the foam insulation inside old refrigerators and freezers, contain 13,000 BTUs of energy per pound and can be used to directly replace coal. Photo: General Electric

What it makes

Unlike the shredded foam byproduct of standard appliance recycling – which is pretty much useless – the foam pellets produced through the URT system can be used for energy recovery.

The pellets – which contain approximately 13,000 BTUs of energy per pound – can be used to directly replace coal in any facility that burns for energy (such as steam and electrical generators).

Other reclaimed materials, including plastics, copper and aluminum – are transported to recyclers for use in new products. Steel from appliances processed at the AAP plant has even been reused to make steel deck plates for GE locomotives.

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