Some fridge recyclers are cooler than others

Some fridge recyclers are cooler than others

Millions of waste fridges are currently produced in the UK and Ireland every year. These waste fridges are hazardous and require specific treatment. The biggest environmental risks are in the refrigerant in the compressor oil and the blowing agent which is used in the insulating Polyurethane (PU) foam.

Whilst the use of CFC’s (Chlorofluorocarbons) have been banned since the mid 1980’s fridges containing these ozone depleting gases still make up about 10% of the fridges currently recycled. The Hydrofluorocarbons (HFC) that replaced them also have the potential to damage the ozone layer and as a result need to be captured and contained in the same way.

Are all fridges recycled the same way?

From the time our old fridge is deposited at the local civic amenity site or loaded onto the back of a lorry, very few of us give it a second thought. At this point we feel we have discharged our duty as a responsible citizen and we trust that our old kitchen buddy will be disposed of in the most sustainable way possible.

However not all fridge recyclers are equal. Different interpretations of EU regulations mean that a number of different processes are used across the UK and Ireland. The ability of these processes to capture the harmful elements varies significantly.   
Perhaps more worrying is that recent data from research undertaken by Anthesis shows that the majority of UK fridge recycling plants are failing to extract the levels of blowing agent expected by the Environment Agency.  The uncaptured CFCs equates to releasing 418,660 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere over the last two years. The Anthesis research equates this to the emissions from around 100,000 family cars.

Recycling the Enva way

Enva’s fridge recycling facility in Toomebridge near Belfast is one of only three UK facilities that operates to an independently audited standard known as WEEELABEX.

Enva process 250,000 fridges (10,000 tonnes) per annum and achieve a recycling rate of 83% and a gas recovery rate of 98%.

The system can be broken down into four stages:

  1. Removal of glass, seals, plastic, and stainless steel (for example, the fridge drawers); 
  2. Removal of gas and oil; 
  3. Removal and sorting of any external metal (for example, the compressor and copper pipes);  
  4. Processing the main body of the fridge into its components – fragmented steel and aluminium, plastic (2-3 types) and foam.

Steps 1-3 are either manual or partly automated and are performed on a processing line that leads to the fridge recycling machine, with Step 4 being completely automated.

Step 4 loads fridges into a two-shaft shredder where the units are pre-shredded. The material then enters a hammer mill which reduces its size to circa. 50mm fragments and the PU foam is separated from the other materials.

Foam and plastics are separated using a Zig-Zag separator and the foam is then processed through a shredder, autoclaves (pressure chambers) in series, and then pressed to produce briquettes, releasing the CFCs and other gases from the foam. The entire plant is operated under negative pressure with nitrogen used throughout the process to reduce oxygen content to prevent any fires or explosion. Gases released during the process are diverted to the solvent recovery unit (Activated Carbon) where they are captured.

The recovered material outputs from the process include ferrous metals, non-ferrous metals, plastics, gas, cables, glass, oil, compressors and foam briquettes.

What makes Enva different?

WEEELABEX is a European certification to assess conformity to the EN 50625-standards and evaluates the processing and disposal of WEEE. It also assesses the de-pollution process and downstream-process for secondary treatment.  More specifically WEEELABEX provides a common set of European standards with respect to collection, handling, storage, recycling, preparation for re-use and disposal of WEEE and demonstrates also compliance with EU health, safety and environmental legislation.

WEEELABEX is independently certified on an annual basis. To achieve the standard Enva has proven to capture over 90% of the potentially harmful elements in the fridges processed. This is compared to other less technologically advanced recycling processes, which can result in a capture rate of as little as 25%.

Time for harmonisation

By adopting WEEELABEX as the base level for fridge recycling standards the UK could take a significant step forward in reducing our impact on the earth’s fragile environment.

Standardisation to a common level would result in a sizeable increase in the capture rates of hazardous materials while creating a level playing field where all operators are working to the same exacting standards.

Regulating authorities would also benefit from a consistent standard that was independently audited and was free from any ambiguity as to what constitutes an acceptable level of capture.

Consumer confidence would also be improved and reduce the reputational risk to brands and authorities from unhappy customers. Society is increasingly less tolerant of environmental negligence and we are now prepared to take action against those who we deem not to have taken all reasonable steps (as a minimum) to prevent it.