Disposing of Appliances Responsibly

Background on Refrigerated Appliances

Older refrigerators/freezers contain ozone-depleting refrigerants and/or foam blowing agents, depending on the year they were manufactured. In addition to depleting the ozone layer, these substances are also potent greenhouse gases (GHGs) that contribute to climate change when emitted to the atmosphere. While the refrigerants used in newly manufactured units are still potent GHGs, these appliances do not contain ozone depleting substances (ODS) and are significantly more energy efficient than older models.

Similarly, window air conditioners and dehumidifiers contain environmentally-harmful refrigerants, and the older units consume significantly more energy than the newer ones.

To reduce energy demand, ozone depletion, and global climate impacts, it is critical that older units be permanently removed from the energy grid and properly disposed of so that environmentally-harmful refrigerants and foam blowing agents are captured and recycled or destroyed.

Learn more about the environmental impacts of refrigerated household appliances.

Why is Removal and Proper Disposal of Appliances Important?

In the United States alone, it is estimated that there are approximately 200 million household refrigerators/freezers, 40 million window air conditioning units, and 15 million dehumidifiers (AHAM 2001, EIA 2001). Of the refrigerators and freezers, over 20 million are secondary units located in people’s basements or garages (AHAM 2001, EIA 2001). Often, these secondary units are older, less efficient models that are underutilized, but kept for convenience.

Roughly nine million refrigerators/freezers, six million window air conditioning units, and nearly one million dehumidifiers are disposed of each year.. The proper removal and disposal of these appliances would:

  • Prevent emissions of ODS and GHGs by not allowing their release from refrigerants and insulating foams
  • Prevent the release of PCBs, mercury, and used oil
  • Save landfill space and energy by recycling rather than landfilling durable materials (i.e., metals, plastics, and glass); and
  • Reduce energy consumption

Given the large number of refrigerated appliances that are taken out of service each year, the environmental impacts of removing and properly disposing of old appliances can be significant. The figure below illustrates the climate benefits of removing old units from the power grid and disposing of them properly.

 1,500 passenger cars NOT driven for one year of 57 acres of forest presrved from deforestation.

Top of Page

What is Required by Law?

When household appliances are taken out of service, federal law requires that: (1) all refrigerant be recovered prior to dismantling or disposal (40 CFR Part 82 Subpart F); and (2) universal waste (e.g., mercury), used oil, and PCBs be properly managed and stored (40 CFR Parts 273, 279, 761).

State laws may have additional requirements. For example, in 2006, California introduced a law requiring entities that remove materials such as mercury, used oils, PCBs, and refrigerants from appliances be certified by the state (AB 2277 Exit). Similarly, some states require that certain durable appliance materials be recycled. At this time, no federal or state laws require that appliance foam be recovered; however, the common practice of shredding and/or landfilling of foam represents a significant source of ODS and GHG emissions which could be avoided through foam recovery.

For more information on disposal requirements for appliance recyclers (PDF) (4 pp, 384K, About PDF).

Top of Page

What Typically Happens to Disposed Appliances?

Many old refrigerated appliances are disposed through curbside pick-up programs offered by municipalities or through appliance pick-up services offered by retailers when a new unit is purchased and delivered. Typically, municipalities and retailers subcontract the disposal of old appliances to third parties, who may re-sell some of the units domestically or abroad. For example, an estimated 40% of used appliances collected by retailers are placed on the secondary market each year—meaning that they may be put back on the domestic electricity grid, where they continue to operate inefficiently, consuming excessive amounts of electricity. Alternately, some of the operational units are exported to developing countries, where they are less likely to be handled responsibly at end-of-life.

Units that are not fit for resale are typically sent to appliance recyclers, scrap metal companies, or other third parties, where valuable metals are generally salvaged for recycling, and foams, plastics, and glass are typically shredded and landfilled. While federal regulations govern the treatment of refrigerant, mercury and PCBs, the ultimate fate of these components is often unknown; there have been reports of appliance dumping, venting of refrigerant, and release of hazardous components to the environment.

Top of Page

What Can Be Done to Help?

Municipalities and retailers can have a positive impact on appliance recycling by ensuring that all old units collected are permanently removed from the electricity grid (i.e., not re-sold) and are responsibly disposed. Utilities, many of which have a mandate to reduce energy demand, can also play a role in facilitating responsible appliance disposal by promoting the permanent removal of old, energy inefficient appliances from the grid. Similarly, manufacturers can facilitate the appliance recycling process in the name of product stewardship by promoting and supporting the responsible disposal of old appliances produced under their brand name.

To date, dozens of utilities have implemented appliance disposal programs across the country—many of which are ongoing. These programs promote the removal and safe disposal of old, inefficient refrigerators and freezers, typically through advertisements and by offering appliance owners a financial incentive (e.g., $35) for the collection of their old units. In some cases, rebates toward the purchase of a new refrigerator/freezer or window air conditioning unit that has earned the government’s ENERGY STAR® label are provided when old units are turned in. To collect and process the old appliances and administer and/or market the program, utilities typically hire a third-party contractor. Because of reduced energy demand, these appliance disposal programs are considered to be highly cost-effective. On average, these programs cost $0.04 to reduce each kWh of demand, and can lead to benefit-cost ratios of more than three to one (for refrigerators) (Kolwey 2006).

Universities and other large organizations can also reduce emissions of ODS and GHGs through the collection and proper disposal of refrigerated appliances in their facilities and/or surrounding communities.

Entities that have a responsible appliance disposal program in place, or would like to implement one, should consider joining EPA’s voluntary Responsible Appliance Disposal (RAD) Program!

Top of Page

References:

Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers (AHAM). 2001. INFOBulletin #7: Mahor Home Appliance Saturation and Length of First Ownership Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers Research Study, 2001.Exit

Energy Information Association (EIA). 2001. Appliance Reports: US Data Table 2001.

Kolwey, Neil. 2006. “Refrigerator Recycling Programs: Rounding Up the Old Dogs for Easy Energy Savings.” E-Source. April.

Top of Page