Major appliances can be major polluters, if not trashed properly.
Of the 9 million refrigerators disposed of annually, about 90 percent are recycled for their metal alone – a process that emits a substantial amount of ozone-destroying gases and agents by shredding the appliance’s foam and plastic, then leaving those materials for the landfill.
Change is afoot, however, and industry is ready to take advantage.
General Electric recently announced a partnership with Appliance Recycling Centers of America (ARCA) to recycle used refrigerators through new technology that recovers 95 percent of the insulating foam in the fridge doors and walls, while also capturing the chemical agents in the foam in a sealed system.
The resulting foam pellets may be burned as fuel while the agents (such as chlorofluorocarbons and hydrofluorocarbons) are condensed into liquid, stored under pressure and then shipped for proper destruction.
“The potential of this technology is tremendous,” said Brian Conners, President and COO of ARCA Advanced Processing.
If the foam from all 9 million fridges could be processed through the new system from UNTHA Recycling Technology, he added, “the greenhouse gas emissions avoided would be equivalent to the annual CO2-e emissions of more than 2.4 million cars on U.S. roads.”
Under the agreement, GE will supply used appliances of any brand hauled away by its home delivery service to ARCA’s advanced recycling center in the Philadelphia area. The pickup area is limited to a six-state region in about a 250-mile radius of the plant.
The volume is what will make this project viable, explains Jack Cameron, ARCA president and CEO. The new processing center in Pennsylvania will be able to handle between 700,000 and 1 million appliances annually, and GE’s supply will represent about half, Cameron estimated.
“The technology is expensive and advanced,” he explained. “It’s only been successful in countries where it’s required.”
GE’s initiative is a voluntary measure in conjunction with EPA’s Responsible Appliance Disposal (RAD) program, launched in 2006, which encourages utilities, retailers and other institutions to recover ozone-depleting substances from old appliances and tracks the benefits.
In 2009, RAD partners recycled 644,751 fridges and 35,356 stand-alone freezers, reclaiming or destroying about half a million pounds of refrigerants and foam-blowing agents (polluting chemicals that help insulating foam spread throughout an appliance’s metal and plastic shell).
GE is the first manufacturer to become a RAD partner. Major appliance retailer Sears joined the program in 2006.