September 2005

Poorly labeled pentane appliances cause major safety issues

One of the arguments put forward by RAL has acquired major significance in the current debate on the environmentally sound recycling of pentane-containing waste fridges and freezers.

Manufacturers’ representatives have so far only conceded that there was a short transitional period in the 1990’s during which pentane-containing units were not clearly marked. However, a recent investigation by the RAL Quality Assurance Association has shown that a significant number of the refrigerator and freezer appliances currently being sold today are still inadequately labeled.

Poor labeling creates a significant fire and explosion risk. If this risk is to be minimized, all European fridge recycling plants must be modified or refitted to handle units containing pentane. The recent fires that have broken out at a number of plants demonstrate the seriousness of the risk.

For some time now, fridge manufacturers and manufacturers’ associations have rejected calls to process refrigeration appliances that contain hydrocarbons in existing fridge recycling plants. Despite the fact that RAL has shown that the European WEEE directive demands that all hydrocarbons be completely recovered from the waste appliance and then recycled or disposed of appropriately, manufacturers have continued to maintain that only inadequately labeled appliances need to be processed as if they contained CFC’s.

The results of an RAL investigation have considerably weakened this line of argument.

Extensive research at electrical retail outlets and DIY stores in Luxembourg, France and Germany has shown that there is still a considerable problem regarding the incorrect classification of appliances and that this problem is not just restricted to units manufactured during the period in the 1990’s when hydrocarbon-containing appliances first started to appear.

It is certainly the case that the refrigeration appliances from well-known manufacturers now being sold are all properly labeled with respect to the contents of their cooling circuits and insulation materials.

The large ‘PENTANE’ inscription that is either printed or stamped onto the unit can be recognized without difficulty and would not impede proper sorting, should sorting be necessary despite the legal concerns arising from the WEEE directive.

There is, in RAL’s opinion, no doubt that even today, many of the producers of fridges and freezers either provide no information or use small inconspicuous stickers to inform owners that an appliance contains pentane. These adhesive labels all too often peel off while the appliance is still in the showroom. It, therefore, seems unlikely that these labels will remain in place or remain legible after fifteen years of use.

On the basis of this evidence it is clear that the problem of correctly identifying waste appliances will remain with us for a very long time and affects units currently being produced today. It is therefore essential that any units whose classification is in doubt must continue to be recycled as if they contained CFC’s.

It also follows that recycling companies must ensure that their plants are explosion proof so that hydrocarbon-containing appliances can be treated even when preliminary separation into CFC and HC appliances has been attempted.

For the reasons stated above and to ensure compliance with the recovery, recycling and reuse rates and process monitoring requirements in the WEEE directive, it is essential that all waste fridges and freezers are treated in plants that can recover not only CFCs, HCFCs, and HFCs but also hydrocarbons from the plant’s exhaust gas stream before subjecting these materials to safe destruction or further treatment.

All existing plants must in the very near future be capable of safely treating hydrocarbon-containing waste appliances.


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