According to the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers, large appliances are being recycled at a high rate, thanks to the market value of the metals used in the manufacturing of these appliances.
While the life expectancy of major appliances ranges from 10 to 18 years, when it is finally time for the units to be replaced, these appliances are solid sources of steel and other recycled metals.
In 2017, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Responsible Appliance Disposal (RAD) program’s 42 partners collected and processed a total of 561,529 refrigerant-containing appliances from all 50 states and Puerto Rico. The RAD program’s effort in 2017 represented an estimated 4 percent of the total number disposed in the U.S. and resulted in the recycling of 69 million pounds of ferrous metals, 4 million pounds of nonferrous metals, 17 million pounds of plastic and 3 million pounds of glass. Since its inception in 2006, 7.7 million refrigerated appliances have been recycled in the RAD program, resulting in the recycling of 1.06 billion pounds of metal, 176 million pounds of plastic, and 27 million pounds of glass.
Despite RAD’s efforts, the appliance recycling industry faces numerous hurdles as state laws vary greatly and appliance production and recycling methods are changing constantly.
“The appliance recycling market is very regionalized, based on state regulations and the types of materials that are accepted by recycling facilities,” said Andrew Weins, chief operating officer, JDog United. “For instance, major metro areas have facilities that take appliances they can reclaim and then rebuild to be sold. Overall it’s a stagnant market with a lot of the same players doing the same things to recycle or reuse appliances. Scrap prices have remained steady over the past several years, which is a contributing factor to the stabilization of the market.”
As Weins explained, the biggest change to the viability of appliance recycling has been to the electrical components in appliances, which impact how the appliances are ultimately broken down, reused, or recycled.
“Twenty years ago, appliances would run on switches and resistors, but now a lot of appliances have circuit boards with computing power,” Weins said. “Appliances are not just analog – they are digital now with more valuable components that can be reused.” This means while a washer might not be able to clean clothes anymore, a perfectly good circuit board within it could have significant resale value today.
In addition, a lot of appliances being recycled were made of steel or copper wires and resistors, which offer valuable metal that, can be recycled. In fact, according to the Steel Recycling Institute, by weight, the typical appliance consists of approximately 60 percent steel.
“Now more plastic parts, which are less valuable and cannot always be recycled, are being used,” Weins said. “This has made the recycling process more complex and harder to keep appliances out of the landfills.”
Jeff Bittner, founder and president of Exit technologies, an R2 certified, global IT asset Disposition Company, said that there are several trends affecting appliance recycling today.
“Like computers and electronics, there are very few parts that can actually break, be identified and replaced in appliances,” Bittner said. “Mechanical controls have been substituted by electronic controls embedded in a single all-inclusive circuit board. Replacing a single part becomes nearly impossible.”
As a result, in many cases today, it is cost prohibitive for consumers to repair a non-working appliance out of warranty. They often opt to dispose of a faulty machine and purchase a new one.
“While steel continues to be one of the most recycled metals in 2018, the current generation of appliances today contain more plastic in an effort to make them lighter, reducing costs as well as shipping expenditures,” Bittner said. “With the growing proliferation of IoT functionality and smart appliance options, consumers may be more apt to replace their dumb appliances in the near future at an accelerated rate, thus increasing the load of unwanted appliances.”
In addition, the growing economies of China and the developing world present a double edged sword for the appliance recycling industry as they regulate incoming waste products.
“On the one hand, developing nations increasingly are applying sanctions on the recycling scrap materials they will accept,” Bittner said. “On the other hand, demand for recycled materials that help reduce the cost for appliances will grow as more consumers in these countries purchase them for their homes.”
With new materials and parts being used to build appliances, Weins said the challenge becomes keeping up with these changes, as well as understanding the age and makeup of the appliance. As appliances run through the end of their lifecycle and enter the waste stream, facilities have to understand what components are potentially hazardous, precious, or neutral, including components that have no value and are also not a liability. From there, recyclers face the next challenge of determining how best to reclaim the valuable components and also mitigate the environmental impact of the hazardous materials.
According to Weins, the biggest concern and issue for recycling companies is the handling of hazardous materials, namely Freon, which is a cooling agent that is used in refrigerators, freezers, and large air conditioning units, as well as dehumidifiers and water coolers.
“Not all appliances have Freon, but if they do, it has to be captured in order to dispose of or recycle the appliance,” Weins said. “To safely handle Freon you have to be licensed, own the right equipment, and then take the Freon to the proper facility to be reclaimed. There are Freon recovery systems that are used to extract Freon from appliances into a tank, which is then recovered. If Freon is not captured the right way, recycling companies could end up putting the hazardous material into the air or ground.”
With newer appliances, recycling companies are most interested in the circuit boards as they can be very valuable. As Weins explained, circuit boards are usually comprised of some kind of precious metal, like gold or aluminum, and can be sold as is or electronic waste (e-waste) companies can break them down further to be reused or resold.
“The components and materials that are used to make appliances are going to continue to evolve,” Weins said. “Because of this rapidly changing market, appliance recyclers have to stay smart on the materials being used to build appliances and understand what digital components, such as LCD screens and circuit boards, are going into them. That way, when an appliance enters the waste stream, it can be properly handled.”
While the appliance recycling industry is constantly changing as production and recycling methods develop, key players in the industry are confident that a stable market and programs such as RAD will keep appliance recycling productive into the future.― American Recycler