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Where do old refrigerators go to die?

Manufacturing and EngineeringElectrical ApplianceEnvironmental IssuesGlobal WarmingU.S. Environmental Protection AgencyEnvironmental PoliticsSouthern California Edison Company

The decline of my 10-year-old refrigerator started with an unsettling wheezing sound and ended with a death rattle that would have cost $500 to fix. So I, like 10 million other Americans each year, dropped money on a new fridge and had the broken one hauled away.

But I was nagged by a lingering concern: What happened to my hulking old Amana? The Pacific Sales where I bought my new Samsung offered a free haul-away service, but what did that company do with it? Where, exactly, was it hauled away to?

Fullerton, I found out, was the answer — a place called Jaco Environmental, a company that recycles 600,000 working (but energy-inefficient) refrigerators and 500,000 broken and unwanted refrigerators nationally every year at 30 facilities nationwide.

The sprawling Fullerton facility is 55,000 square feet, with rows of dated and dented models. The day I visited, as many as 200 refrigerators were to be delivered and dismantled into their component parts, a few of which are hazardous and harmful to the environment. A single refrigerator contains chemicals with the greenhouse gas equivalent of 5 tons of carbon dioxide — roughly the same emissions as a passenger car driven for 10,000 miles, according to Michael Dunham, director of energy and environmental programs for Jaco Environmental. Jaco has won two awards from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the last decade for reducing ozone depletion.

The average fridge weighs about 200 pounds, almost all of which can be recycled. About 125 pounds are steel, five pounds are aluminum and an additional three to five pounds are copper. All those metals are separated with the help of a motorized hack saw, ripped apart by hand, sent to metal scrap yards and shipped overseas. For the most part, the steel is recycled into construction rebar, the aluminum into cans and the copper into wiring, Dunham said.

About 10 pounds of the typical refrigerator is polyurethane foam insulation that's hidden in the walls between the metal exterior and plastic interior. The foam is pried off manually with a scraper. In refrigerators manufactured before 1996, about 10% of that foam, by weight, is chlorofluorocarbon, or CFC, refrigerant. The greenhouse gas is 4,620 times more potent than carbon dioxide, according to Dunham.

The recycled refrigerators come to Jaco two ways. Some are reclaimed through utility bounty programs, such as the one offered by Southern California Edison, which pays its customers $35 to recycle working units that are energy hogs and use as much as four times more electricity than refrigerators manufactured today. (The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has a similar bounty program operated by Appliance Appliance Recycling Centers of America, which has a facility in Compton.) Other Jaco refrigerators are obtained through haul-away partnerships with Sears, Best Buy and Lowe's.

If a refrigerator is recycled through Southern California Edison, the CFC is extracted from the foam and captured for destruction at a hazardous materials facility. If the refrigerator is recycled through a store, the foam is simply stuffed into a plastic bag, sealed up and shipped to Commerce 20 miles away, where it's burned to generate electricity. In a waste-to-energy facility, the foam from a single refrigerator generates about 20 kilowatt hours of electricity, Dunham said.

The 10 to 12 pounds of tempered glass found in modern refrigerator shelving is pulled out and sent to a specialty recycler that can handle the glass. Tempered glass can't be recycled with regular glass because it melts at a far higher temperature. The glass recycled through Jaco is sent to a materials recycler that grinds it into fine glass powder that's sold for use in concrete, countertops or as an aerator for potting soil, Dunham said.

The 25 pounds of ABS plastic that typically lines a refrigerator's interior are removed and sent to a plant that pelletizes them for reuse in various products.

The capacitors that keep the refrigerator motor running may contain PCBs, so they're removed and sent to a hazardous materials facility. In refrigerators manufactured before 1995, the oil that runs through a compressor and keeps the refrigerator cold contains the chlorofluorocarbon refrigerant R12, a greenhouse gas that is 10,780 times more potent than CO2, Dunham said. CFC refrigerants were phased out of use in 1996 in accordance with the Montreal Protocol, and federal law requires that all refrigerants be captured. The refrigerants captured at Jaco are piped into 1,000-pound canisters and shipped to a company in Arkansas that destroys them.

The enormity of refrigerants' greenhouse gas potential makes them lucrative on the carbon credit market. When California implements its cap-and-trade system next January as part of the state's mandate to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, companies such as Jaco will be able to use credits from the destruction of refrigerants such as R12 to offset their emissions.

As for the enormous cardboard boxes and amounts of foam packaging used to protect the exteriors of new refrigerators? Those end up at Jaco as well. The cardboard is shipped overseas for recycling. The polystyrene is melted on site into a product 100 times as dense. It is sent to China, where it's often remade into photo frames and decking, Dunham said.

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Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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