What Should I do with my Old Appliance?
Multiple times a week we receive a call from somebody asking if we take refrigerant-containing appliances. Based upon the frequency of those calls, it’s obvious there is a lot of confusion when it comes to managing old appliances. Most people have a vague sense that refrigerators, freezers, and air conditioners cannot be thrown in the landfill, but they do not necessarily know why disposal is problematic. Moreover, most also do not know what should be done with these items once they’ve reached their end-of-life. The good news is that appliances can be fully recycled. While it is true that refrigeration devices present certain unique environmental risks when mismanaged, there are multiple cost-effective options available to recycle these items in a responsible manner. Colorado Industrial Recycling and many other recyclers are fully capable of ethically recycling appliances with refrigerants. However, not all readily available options to get rid of unwanted appliances are ethical or even legal. The consumer needs to be educated about why appliances deserve special attention, and they need to be discerning when choosing an avenue to recycle these items.
Why are Appliances Involving Refrigeration an Environmental Concern?
Appliances like refrigerators, freezers, and air conditioners (both facility air conditioners and motor vehicle air conditioners) contain refrigerant gases known collectively as freon. These chemical gases can cause negative environmental impacts if they are improperly released into the atmosphere. Older refrigerant devices contain chlorofluorocarbons (CFC). When released into the atmosphere, CFCs cause damage to the ozone layer. The correlation between CFCs and the deterioration of the ozone was first discovered in 1974. The use of CFCs was slowly phased out in the years following that discovery, until they were ultimately completely banned by international agreement in 1996. The banning of CFCs represents one of the great environmental achievements of the 20th century. As a direct result of the international ban, the ozone layer has shown significant recovery in the last few decades.
Following the discontinuation of chlorofluorocarbons, refrigerant devices switched to using hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HFCs) and tetrafluoroethene (R 134a). While these refrigerants do not damage the ozone layer, they are still very problematic. The improper release of HCFCs and tetrafluoroethene produces a significant greenhouse gas impact. The global warming potential of HFCs and R134a are approximately 3,000 times higher than the global warming potential of carbon dioxide. Despite their limited use, the release of HFCs make up a significant percentage of all greenhouse gas emissions. Clearly, modern refrigerants are still very problematic from an environmental perspective.
What are the Laws Surrounding Disposal of Refrigerant Containing Devices?
Given the potential environmental impacts described above, it is not surprising that there are numerous regulations regarding the management of refrigerant gases. Anyone disposing of items with refrigerants must be able to verify how the refrigerants were managed. Under the law, it is illegal to cut the lines on an appliance and deliberately vent refrigerant gasses into the atmosphere. Enforcement of these regulations is especially stringent. Most environmental regulations are enforced at the state level. However, due to the significant impact mismanagement can have on the environment, the regulations involving refrigerant management are overseen directly by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In recent years, the EPA has made enforcement of the regulations an area of focus. The EPA can issue a fine of up to $37,500 per day for any violations of these regulations. They also have in place a $10,000 reward that can be collected for informing the agency of violators. Fines can be levied both against professionals and do-it-yourselfers. Bottomline, do not attempt to remove refrigerants from an appliance (or automobile) yourself. Your next-door neighbor has a $10,000 incentive to snitch you out! Refrigerant recovery should only be done by a professional with the capacity and competency to do so.
How are Refrigerants Recycled?
The good news is that the technology exists to safely recover and recycle refrigerants. The process for recycling refrigerants is multifaceted and generally involves more than one tier of processors. The first step in the process involves recovery of the refrigerant gases. Recovery essentially means removing the refrigerant from the appliance (or motor vehicle air conditioner) and transferring it to a temporary and safe container. Once it is recovered, the gas can either be recycled or reclaimed. Recycling involves sending the recovered refrigerant through a device that cleans it by removing the moisture and particles that make it toxic. The recycled gas can then be redeposited into the original appliance or, more likely, stored and used in a different system. Reclaiming takes the recycling process a step even further by removing the impurities and returning the refrigerant to a pure state that meets the same standards used for refrigerants that have not been used. As you would imagine, the reclaiming process is much more technical and requires more sophisticated equipment.
What are the Options for Safe Recovery of Refrigerants?
There are generally two primary options available for the average consumer to recycle or reclaim refrigerants. The refrigerant can be safely recovered through a HVAC-certified service/repair provider, or the item can be recycled at a qualified recycling facility. In either case, it is recommended that the consumer verify that the provider selected is managing refrigerant gases in a manner that is both ethical and legal.
Whenever seeking maintenance or service repairs on an air conditioning unit, refrigerator, freezer, cooler, or other form of refrigerant-containing device, it is always best practice to verify the company performing the repair is registered as a refrigerant service facility and that the technicians servicing the device are all HVAC-certified. If the service technician determines the device needs to be decommissioned and replaced, confirm with him or her that the refrigerants have been safely removed and recovered. If the technician did recover the refrigerants, maintain records verifying the date and company that performed the recovery. You will need this information when recycling the appliance!
If you are simply replacing a device with a newer model, it might be worthwhile checking with the store selling you the new appliance to see if they have a recycling take-back option for the old unit. This can often be a convenient option for recycling, especially if the company can haul away the old device. However, most of these take-back programs charge hauling and recycling fees, so it is important to understand the costs associated with the service. It is also still strongly recommended that you vet how the store recycles the appliances they collect. Historically, some of these take-back programs have violated regulations regarding refrigerant recovery. Just because a company is a household name doesn’t necessarily mean it is following the law. The responsible consumer should always seek confirmation that the device will be managed ethically. I simple web search about the take-back program can be very revealing.
Of course, it is also an option for you to recycle an appliance directly through a scrap yard. If this is the course taken, it is critical that you do some research first. It is important to note that not all recycling providers accept items with refrigerants. Many recyclers lack the expertise and/or the capacity for recordkeeping that is required by EPA regulations. In recent years, several recyclers have faced considerable fines for failing to comply with regulations. Some recyclers have responded to this escalation in enforcement by no longer accepting these refrigerant containing devices. Therefore, it is important to verify appliances are allowed under the acceptance policy of the recycler. Material acceptance policies vary significantly from one yard to the next. If the facility does take appliances, the consumer should verify that the recycler is managing these items responsibly. Recycling providers handling devices with refrigerants are not required to have HVAC-certified technicians or be registered as recycling service facilities. That said, there are still a number of regulatory requirements that must be met. The recycler needs to possess recovery equipment that meets regulatory standards, have procedures for identifying refrigerant devices, documented procedures and a training program for proper recovery, and records showing how refrigerants are managed downstream. To be compliant, the recycler needs to be able to account for the management of refrigerants through all stages of the process. As a consumer, you should ensure the recycler can speak to what happens when it receives these devices.
When recycling an appliance, the consumer should be prepared to pay a service fee. The requirements for ethical refrigerant management are costly. A recycler acting responsibly must devote a lot of extra time and labor to the safe management of refrigerants. In addition to the internal labor costs, the scrap yard will also face service fees from the processor it ultimately uses for recycling or reclamation. Therefore, it is often necessary to pass on these costs to the consumer. At Colorado Industrial Recycling, we try to strike a balance between covering our internal costs and making responsible recycling as easy as possible for our customers. We accept appliances as donation-only-items. We use the scrap value of the metals to offset the costs of the ethical recovery and management of the refrigerants. We also do not charge a refrigerant processing fee for vehicles with air conditioning units. There is enough scrap value in the vehicle to offset the cost of responsible management of refrigerants.
If you are recycling an appliance where the refrigerant has already been removed, be prepared to provide the recycler with information regarding how that refrigerant was managed. The EPA requires that the recycler account for the refrigerants for all the appliances it received. If refrigerant was removed prior to arrival, the recycler will need to verify through documentation that the refrigerant was recovered responsibly. If the refrigerant was released through damage to the appliance, this too will need to be verified before the recycler can accept that item.
When looking to dispose of an air conditioning unit, refrigerator, or freezer, the consumer should act with due diligence. The unique environmental risks associated with CFCs, HFCs, and R-134a’s demand that special care be taken to avoid releasing these gases into the atmosphere. A quick survey of news articles related to the topic will quickly produce numerous examples of recyclers and box stores that have received large fines for violating the laws associated with refrigerant management. Clearly, not all companies recycling appliances are doing so responsibly. The conscientious consumer should take care to vet the recycler they choose to support.