E-waste and appliances begin to overlap

The word “appliance” in its strictest sense is a piece of equipment for adapting a tool or machine for a special purpose. In common vernacular it has come to mean a broad spectrum of household and industrial electromechanical devices too broad to enumerate here. The products span everything from a hair curling iron to multi-ton rooftop air conditioners.

The household appliance industry divides appliances into three broad categories: 1) Major white-goods such as refrigerators, freezers and ranges. 2) Portable appliances which include kitchen countertop units, home comfort products like air conditioners, fans, alarms, humidifiers and personal care products like hair dryers and electric tooth brushes. 3) Floor care units such as vacuum cleaners, extractors, steamers and central vacuum systems.

That, of course, does not include handheld or stationary power tools, central air conditioners, water heaters, and myriad other electromechanical devices that have penetrated the home and workplace which are also considered “appliances.”

While 23 states presently have electronic waste regulations, it would appear that not many have specifically addressed the recycling of household appliances. Hazardous materials harbored in appliances such as refrigerants and mercury are governed by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for collection and disposal.

Appliances generally contain a small fraction, by weight, of what are defined as traditional e-wastes such as cathode ray tubes, flat screens and printed circuit boards. Appliances do have electrical plugs and wires, and some are battery powered. Many have electric motors and are valued by recyclers for laminated steel housing and copper. And the materials they are made of – metals and many plastics – have good scrap market value.

Compared to consumer and IT electronics, however, appliance circuitry is generally simpler and more basic; a switch, perhaps a small circuit board, wires and a few electronic components. Yet, it is there. And, as appliances become smarter, there will be more of what some consider “e-wastes,” but still not a significant proportion compared to other materials of which they are made.

In the coming years, however, large and small appliances will likely be adding electronic weight. This will occur as more user-friendly features like touch-screen displays, scanners and sensors are added with the emergence of smart-appliances.

Utilities across the country have already installed millions of smart-meters, and more are on the way. Smart-appliances are beginning to enter the market to interface with smart-meters. They will incorporate demand response modules to give consumers, and in many cases utilities, the ability to program or remotely control appliances to reduce electric consumption and take advantage of lower time-of-use rates.  

GE and other manufacturers are already offering smart-appliances. Early entries into the marketplace use separate demand response modules, wireless transceivers which plug into the back of the appliance and work with installed electronics and software, but as the technology advances it will eventually be built-in to the appliances themselves.

In Europe, the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE) was well intentioned. It imposed the responsibility for the disposal of waste electrical and electronic equipment on product manufacturers, but has been unevenly implemented and led to bickering and a slew of lawsuits.

Governments imposing responsibility was the easy part. Building the infrastructure to collect, transport and recycle materials in an ecologically-friendly manner, pay for it and fairly allocate costs among the participants has proven much more difficult. Return rates as measured by recent studies show that the WEEE system may not be the best approach.

Under a new law that takes effect on April 1, 2011 consumers in British Columbia will be able to return small appliances to municipal collection centers that will be set up around the province, or to as yet undetermined points. In one of the most ambitious programs of its type in North America, small appliances will be collected, transported and processed in an environmentally sound manner. The 2011 deadline is an extension of existing Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) regulations that applied to electronic products. Details on how small appliances will be exactly handled are still being worked out, and the devil is in the details as WEEE discovered.

A trend appears to have emerged – as current electronics waste regulations spread among the states they may eventually be extended to encompass electrical devices and appliances.

But regulations covering major appliances may not be necessary because American recyclers are already doing an effective job and some municipal recycling programs are recovering large and small appliances with obvious scrap metal value.

A top appliance industry executive long involved with end-of-life appliance issues said, “Most white goods are dealt with very efficiently in the solid waste stream by either retail return programs, municipal recycling programs or entrepreneurs. In the States we believe that there’s about a 90 percent recycle rate for white goods. In Canada, studies have shown that over 95 percent of major appliances enter the recycling stream at end of life.”

An older refrigerator ready for recycling, for instance, yields a fraction of one percent in e-waste, yet it must be handled by a recycler certified to handle hazardous wastes regulated under the Clean Air Act. When accumulated, the scant electronics, motors and plastics yield some value that help offset recycling costs. Recyclers still recover Freon, clean it and recycle for use in older vehicles, but that market is fading away as those vehicles disappear. The primary income to white goods recyclers comes from selling scrap metal and disposal fees.

Terry Zeien, owner of J.R.’s Advanced Recycling Services, based in Minneapolis, has been recycling appliances in the upper Midwestern states since 1988. “We don’t work with utilities, or manufacturers, mostly private sector and the government. Typically, our customers are everyone in a state. We service households to rental units to anyone dealing in appliances or have an appliance they want to dispose of, including municipal recycling facilities and county agencies.”

As a state certified appliance recycler, J.R.’s collects appliances with its own trucks or customers ship them to its processing facility. “There’s some degree of electronics in most everything nowadays. We do a huge amount of residential from waste haulers and from homes as well. In Minnesota, it typically costs $30 to pick up one item at a home. You pick it up because that’s part of your job, not just for the scrap, but providing a service to dispose of it in an environmentally sound and legal way.”

When an appliance arrives at J.R.’s, it is evaluated to determine if the unit is new enough to have resale value. “We only refurbish two to three percent of our volume. We have two retail stores, one in Minnesota and one in Iowa, where we repair and put them back on the market. People are looking for better bargains on appliances. If you can buy a washer for $200 versus $500, what would you do? We do mostly mechanical repairs and offer a six-month parts and labor warrantee, a strong one. If an appliance lasts six months it usually lasts a long time.”

Appliances to be scrapped at J.R.’s are inspected for refrigerants and other hazardous wastes which are removed. Freon is tapped into cylinders, cleaned and resold. Mercury is recycled and PCBs are disposed of in an environmentally safe way. Motors and compressors go to a metal recycler. Electronic components are shipped out to an e-waste processor. Steel is sent to a local mill where it is shredded and made into rebar for highway construction.

“It’s our private policy that all our recycled metal stays in Minnesota. None is exported. We have tough environmental laws in Minnesota, are certified by state to handle hazardous wastes and inspected heavily by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency,” said Zeien.

Edward R. Cameron, CEO of Appliance Recycling Centers of America, Inc. (ARCA), said, “We work mostly with electric utilities and manufacturers and have operations in 20 states and in Canada and Mexico. We go any place a utility will sponsor an appliance recovery and recycling program.”

In a typical ARCA-sponsored program, the electric utility offers a cash incentive for customers to turn in an old, working, inefficient refrigerator or freezer. “Utilities advertise to consumers, and in some cases we do, that if they have a working, energy inefficient refrigerator over 10 years old, they can call a number, have it picked up for free and be sent an incentive check ranging from $25 to $50 dollars, depending on the specific program.”

ARCA provides a complete service and is considered a partner because they represent the utility. They operate a call center, schedule the pickups, dispatch trucks, bring the appliance to their recycling center, do the proper recycling of the appliance and send the customer the incentive check. “Then we bill the utility for our services,” Cameron noted.

“Any circuit boards we take out, we send to electronic recyclers. We give them that and they give us some metals, so we like to work with the e-recyclers. In the future, appliances will start being hooked up to the internet. We are also starting to see electronic boards in washers and other major appliances that are using touch screens. I think we are going to see growth in that area.”

“I think most small portable appliances wind up in landfills. I don’t know of any program in the United States that sorts them out of the solid waste stream,” said Rick Meyers, a recycling specialist at the City of Milwaukee Department of Public Works. “We don’t have a recovery program specific to portable appliances. If it’s an item that can be recovered as scrap metal then it’s part of our scrap metal recovery at our collection sites, but otherwise the only appliances we have programs for are the ones that have related regulations, certainly anything with refrigerants.”

“We do have a substantial electronics recycling program that’s been going for ten years. It was always just computer-related electronics until this years’ new Wisconsin law added TVs and other entertainment related items. It doubled our volume. As of September, 2010 there’s a landfill ban on residential computer related and entertainment electronics covered under the bill,” said Meyers.

As in most jurisdictions, Milwaukee does not mention portable appliances in their public information. Aside from curbside collection of cans, bottles and paper, most all small appliances go into the trash and there is no hand sorting in Milwaukee to pull them out.

“The infrastructure is there with the electronics recyclers and they could physically process and market materials from portable appliances, but there’s not much of an economic driver for that and there’s no producer responsibility bill covering those the way there is for electronic waste,” Meyers concluded.

Several e-recyclers were asked about small appliances. Most do not handle or solicit them and turn them away at collection events. Companies like Total Reclaim are taking a more proactive approach. Over the past decade, Total Reclaim has established a state-of-the-art, high-capacity electronics recycling facilities in Seattle, Washington with satellite operations in Oregon and Alaska. The company offers a variety of environmental services for the management of electronics and other hard-to-handle materials, including fluorescent lamps, refrigerant gases and appliances.

Craig Lorch, co-owner, was asked about the future of small appliance recycling. He said, “I view it as the direction that things are going. If we look at the European Union and Canada with different product stewardship programs there’s a movement towards doing more and more devices. The recently enacted New York law for electronics is more comprehensive than any law before it. No question about it, state regulators and local waste officials are looking at how they can get more material out of their waste stream, how they can reduce toxicity or just make their landfills last longer.”

Total Reclaim is in the process of evaluating new equipment to better handle small appliances and is looking in Europe, Canada and Asia for ideas. Currently they are dismantled by hand. Lorch estimated that small appliances represent from one to two percent of current volume because there are no recycling mandates and few opportunities for substantial collections. “The challenges are huge: mixed or unidentifiable plastics, and the potential for batteries deep in equipment and devices that were never meant to be taken apart.”

Fees for disposal at Total Reclaim vary and depend on volume. They are a drop-off site for the Washington e-waste collection program and receive small quantities of small appliances mixed in with electronic gear. Customers wanting to recycle portable appliances are charged $.25 to $.30 per pound depending on the item.

“For small appliances, there’s interest on the side of the waste reduction and recycling advocates that say don’t throw this stuff away, and there’s interest on the part of anti-exporting advocates for materials to be managed domestically. From a resource perspective, there’s only so much copper on the planet and we should be able to do a better job with what we have already mined. There’s a lot of material out there and with some improvements in efficiency a lot of it can be handled,” Lorch concluded.