Dismantling Appliances Leads to Recovered Materials

When Appliance Recycling Center of America, Inc. (ARCA) opened its California site in 1993, the appliance recycler set up a demanufacturing plant. Demanufacturing allows ARCA to re-cover different materials from the appliances and prevents plastics and other items from ending up in the landfill.

Jim Kirwan, general manager, ARCA California, said, "We dismantle everything we can from the appliances. We remove aluminum, glass, plastics, copper wire from electrical components, oils in compressors, plastic foam insulation, capacitors and other fluids the appliances may contain. The more you do upfront, more materials can be recovered."

A large percentage of the appliances ARCA recycles is refrigerators. Refrigerators contain gas refrigerants that need to be removed. Also foam insulation and oils can contain CFC (chlorofluoro-carbons, which are considered ozone-depleting coolants). Both the foam and oils can be removed from the refrigerators and the CFCs removed, leaving recyclable material.

ARCA California has worked for several years with California utilities. Some California utilities offer programs to encourage residents to purchase energy efficient refrigerators. ARCA has contracts to collect the old refrigerators and recycle them.

"We have set up an assembly line for the dismantling of refrigerators. First we identify what kind of insulation is in the refrigerators, some have CFC-R11 containing foam and some have fiberglass insulation. They are put in separate lines depending on the type of insulation," he said.

Once the refrigerators are separated by insulation type, ARCA employees then remove the capacitors. Some capacitors have PCBs in them, said Mr. Kirwan.

From there, the type of refrigerant is identified and the separators go into separate lines again. The refrigerants are removed.

"We get 99.9 percent of the refrigerants out of the systems with our equipment," said Mr. Kirwan.

Refrigerator compressors usually have some oil in them. ARCA drills into the compressors and drains the oil, capturing it.

"This oil contains CFCs. We refine it, removing the CFC with a proprietary system we developed. After the CFCs are removed, the remaining oil is back to a light mineral oil. The oil is then sent to an oil recycler," Mr. Kirwan said.

He explained that when oil contains CFCs, it is considered a hazardous waste. "Hazardous waste brings into play a lot more regulation, more costs and more problems with transportation and disposal. The best and simplest solution it to take the CFCs out of it. What is left is a light weight mineral oil, which is not a hazardous waste, but a hazardous material. As a hazardous material, it is fairly easy to transport to a facility where it can be refined. Hazardous waste can only be taken to a hazardous waste landfill or to an incinerator."

He added, "We can take the oil and make it into a recyclable product. Oil is never going to be very abundant, why not recycle what we already have."

The refrigerators that contain CFC-containing foam insulation are then sent to the "saw room" where two 32-inch band saws cut refrigerators into three to six pieces.

"We remove the CFC foam and process it through an A-55 machine made by Adelmann in Germany. This machine can be described as a controlled refrigeration system. The CFCs become a liquid and can be separated from the foam. Also there is often light oil which is removed, along with some wastewater. You end up with foam, CFC-11 liquid, and some liquid waste of water and light oils. The foam ends up an inert powder resin," Mr. Kirwan said. "The CFC liquid is captured in steel drums."

Once everything has been removed the rest of the refrigerator is sent to the baler, baled and sold to a shredder.

ARCA California also disassembles other appliances. Some freezers and stoves will still have mercury switches that need to be removed. Many air conditioners have multiple capacitors and, of course, the refrigerants are removed from appliances containing them. Some older models also contain PCBs. This year ARCA California will handle 150,000 refrigerators and 15,000 to 20,000 other appliances including ice makers and dehumidifiers.

"Separating the products means all those other recyclable items will not go into the landfill," Mr. Kirwan said. A shredder can pull out the ferrous and non-ferrous metals from the shred easily. The restó glass, plastics, and so on (fluff), end up in a landfill. By dismantling and taking out products, you have a purer product going to the shredder. Even with the magnetic separators you will still have bits and pieces of plastics and rubber on a certain amount of material. A whole refrigerator shredded will contain a certain amount of CFCs in the fluff. Shredders can only have so much contaminated fluff or it has to be sent to a hazardous waste landfill. That increases the costs for the shredder."

Dismantling appliances provides jobs. ARCA's disassembly plant has 80 employees and throughout California ARCA has 125 employees doing appliance collection and working at transfer stations.

ARCA Inc. has been recycling appliances for 25 years. They have recycling locations and appliance resale and retail stores in California, Minnesota and Ohio.