inside ases | chair’s corner
Reduce, Re-Use, Recycle
Unplug the energy-hogging old refrigerator and
give its components a second life.
By JOHN REYNOLDS,
John Reynolds, FAIA,
is chair of the American
Solar Energy Society
Board. Contact him at
Summer’s here, a fine time to discuss the household
refrigerator. According to the Energy Star website
( energystar.gov), the refrigerator is the biggest energy hog in most kitchens: “Replacing a refrigerator bought
in 1990 with a new Energy Star-qualified model would save
enough energy to light the average household for nearly
What to do with that old refrigerator? I’m one of those
who puts it to work elsewhere, to store spillover from the
kitchen. In the hot garage or on the back porch, that old
refrigerator draws more power than ever. American households harbor more than 47 million energy-hog fridges over
10 years old. To see what else can be done with them, I visited a Jaco refrigerator-recycling facility in Portland, Ore.,
part of a nationwide program.
Old refrigerators must be empty, in working order and,
as proof, plugged in at time of pickup. The donor will soon
get a check, typically about $30, for contributing to energy
savings; there is no charge for pickup. The fridge is loaded
on a truck and spray-painted with a huge X and a tracking number. Its power cord is cut, and its thermostat is
smashed. Re-use is no longer an option.
At the recycling plant, a 1-inch core sample is bored to
determine the type of insulation. In older models, manufactured between 1965 and 1993, CFC- 11 was used as a
blowing agent for the polyurethane foam. CFC- 11 is both
an extreme ozone depleter and a powerful greenhouse gas,
so it requires special handling.
At the Jaco refrigerator-recycling facility in Portland, Ore., the appliances
are dismembered, separated and recycled.
The cooling circuit is punctured and the refrigerant,
either CFC- 12 or HFC-134a, sucked into the proper vat.
CFC- 12 (Freon) has similar characteristics to CFC- 11,
while HFC-134a is another greenhouse gas. Some of the
refrigerant can be resold; many older air conditioners,
including those in autos, still need it. This re-use will be
phased out as older models disappear. The rest is shipped
to a qualified handler for disposal.
Compressor oil is drained and heated, to distill any refrigerant that leaked through worn seals. The purified oil can
be used in other industrial equipment. Capacitors in older
60 May 2009 SOLAR TODAY
refrigerators contain polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs),
and must be shipped to hazardous waste facilities, as are
thermostats and switches containing mercury.
The appliance is now dismembered; metals, plastics,
glass and foam are separated. Aluminum is especially prized
for recycling, because it saves so much of the electricity
needed for smelting virgin aluminum. But quantities of steel
are also recovered, and some copper tubing from refrigerators with icemakers. About 150 pounds of metal and
perhaps 25 pounds of plastic are recycled from each refrigerator. Tempered glass shelves are crushed and recycled as
concrete aggregate, as an addition to potting soil or even
spread on dirt roads to inhibit dust.
Polyurethane foam insulation must be scraped off the
metal shell, then bagged to capture outgassing. Each refrigerator will yield about 10 pounds ( 4. 5 kilograms) of foam
and 1 pound of CFC- 11; these yield 15 kilowatt-hours of
electricity at energy incinerators that provide complete,
In all, about 95 percent of each refrigerator can be recycled, instead of outgassing in a landfill.
Chastened, I came home to my newer fridge in the
kitchen and my older, smaller one downstairs in my office.
The smaller fridge had been so useful for storing that watermelon awaiting dinner guests, bottles of beer, white wine,
champagne and soft drinks. I opened it perhaps three times a
month. I carried the contents upstairs and found space in the
kitchen fridge, then turned the controls off downstairs. I will
clean it periodically to fight off mold and power it up a day or
two at a time for those special occasions with many guests.
Otherwise, it will take up space but won’t use electricity.
Is there such a thing as a solar refrigerator? There are
highly efficient DC refrigerators that can run off a photovoltaic (PV) panel, or from a battery, without the inverter
and its power loss. But for most homes with PV, inverters
yield the AC power that is required by the vast majority of
common appliances, lights and motors. The refrigerator,
however, need no longer be the biggest electricity hog.
In fact, refrigerators can be useful participants in the new
smart grids featured in this issue. As with domestic water
heaters, refrigerators have storage capacity that allows them
to take electricity when it is most abundant and refuse it
when most scarce. The smart fridge would cooperate with
intermittent electricity sources such as wind and solar.
Now, how soon can I see a smart fridge at the appliance store?