Recycling CFCs

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January/February 1993 

A new federal law and a likely shortage of chlorofluorocarbons in the near future are presenting potential opportunities in the area of CFC recycling.


Jeff Borsecnik is assistant editor of Scrap Processing and Recycling.

To many, new federal rules that prohibit the release of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in common situations mean nothing but new hassles. Under the latest legislative revisions to the Clean Air Act, no longer can these ozone-depleting refrigerants be vented during the maintenance, repair, servicing, or disposal of air conditioning or refrigeration equipment in automobiles and appliances.  And the penalties for violations are steep: up to $25,000 per day.

For some, however, the ban represents a new business opportunity, even a whole new industry: recycling CFCs.  After all, since the chemical compounds can't generally be released into the atmosphere (as was common practice in the past), it seems logical to return them to their original use after collection rather than treating and disposing of them.

Furthermore, because the United States has pledged to end production of new CFCs by 1995 (with some very limited exceptions)—at which time millions of automobiles, home appliances, and industrial refrigeration equipment designed to employ CFC refrigerants will still be in use and will need CFCs during service for years beyond then—there's a critical need for CFC recycling to preserve the resource. "Unless people start taking this seriously and reclaiming all they can now, there will be a shortage, with refrigerants going to the highest bidders," suggests Wayne Lucas, vice president of Refrigerant Reclaim Inc. (Dumfries, Va.).

The Scrap Connection

Although the amendments to the Clean Air Act require that CFCs be removed from appliances and automobiles prior to delivery for recycling, thus placing the primary onus on dismantlers and other scrap suppliers and minimizing most scrap recyclers' need to recover CFCs, some scrap firms are taking a stab at the new business.

One such company, AmSource (Erie, Pa.), accepts but does not pay for appliances that contain CFCs and purchases those already drained of refrigerants. The firm has recovered CFCs from several hundred appliances since the ban went into effect last July, but has not yet collected enough refrigerants to make it worthwhile to sell to a reclaimer, which chemically reprocesses the used chemical compounds back to original specifications.

One reason for taking the CFC-containing goods, explains Norb Klebanski, a buyer for AmSource, is simply because scrap availability has been relatively low and it's a way to get metal for the company's shredder.  Accepting the appliances is also seen as a way to boost the reputation of the firm and the scrap industry. AmSource has decided to "do the right thing because a lot of appliance recycling centers are charging $30 to $60 to take appliances, sometimes without even accepting the CFCs," explains Klebanski. Comparing these goods to tires—"something people don't want to pay to get rid of"—he points out that without a low- or no-cost outlet for CFC-containing appliances, they might end up illegally dumped.

The Municipal Route

Another firm occupying a niche in the recovery of CFCs from appliances is Total Reclaim Inc. (Seattle), which provides this service to contractors and to the city of Seattle. The Seattle deal works like this:  Residents deliver to city transfer stations appliances they wish to discard and pay $14. The city then turns over the appliances, the $14, plus another $5 per unit to Total Reclaim, which collects the refrigerants from the 150 to 200 refrigerators it processes every week in its 10,000-square-foot facility. Before bans on CFC venting were in place, the city handled discarded refrigerated appliances itself, removing and landfilling the compressors, venting the CFCs, and selling the balance as scrap, according to Jeff Zirkle, Total Reclaim's president.

The company is not yet certain of the value of the CFCs it recovers for sale to reclaimers, notes Zirkle, but the drained appliances sell for about a penny a pound. The real source of profit, he says, is the cash paid by the city for the service.

Like Seattle, many other cities are grappling with the costs and hassles of disposing of or recycling used appliances, and CFC concerns have added urgency. For example, Newark, N.J., is looking for firms interested in handling the 140 refrigerators, 40 freezers, and 35 to 40 air conditioners that residents discard in the average week. 

No Free Ride

Despite the apparent opportunities in working with municipalities seeking total appliance recycling services, some suggest that governments might not become big customers for CFC recycling services. One of them is Glynnis Jones, vice president of Appliance Recycling Centers of America Inc. (Minneapolis), which accepts up to 1,000 appliances per day from retailers, landfills, waste haulers, and others in exchange for a fee, and recovers the CFCs as well as scrap, both of which are sold for recycling or reuse.

"Most local governments are having a hard time paying for current problems," she explains. "They don't want to [get involved in recycling] appliances; lots are actually getting out of it now." Instead, she believes that focus will be placed on requiring retailers to take back their CFC-containing goods.

Regardless, there are a lot of CFC-containing appliances out there to be handled. Jones says EPA data reveal that 32 million household appliances were disposed in 1990 and only 7 percent were recycled. For those interested in a slice of that pie, however, Jones warns that appliance dismantlers face complicated and expensive environmental concerns.

Describing the various hazardous materials that are byproducts of the company's operations and the regulatory complexity that governs their handling, she says, "With long-term liability concerns, environmental issues, and worker safety, those handling refrigerators at a scrap plant or anywhere else need to really know what they are doing."  For example, she notes, it is difficult to identify refrigerants because the appliance industry has not completely standardized its use of such compounds and do-it-yourselfers that have serviced appliances have been known to mix or replace the original refrigerants with other chemicals. Also, old appliances with potentially hazardous refrigerants still turn up, posing risks for workers.  Even CFCs, though relatively innocuous, are mild asphyxiants and can be transformed into hazardous chemicals if exposed to a fire.

Up the Line

So far, while most automobile and appliance dismantlers and recyclers in the CFC business strictly recover the refrigerants—in other words, they remove them from air conditioning and refrigeration equipment and send them on for reclamation—many in the auto service industry have taken a step further, filtering CFCs through a process that removes moisture, oil, and acid.  Although the final product is not considered to be as clean as its virgin counterpart, these filtered CFCs attain a level of cleanliness equivalent to the condition refrigerant is typically in after about a year of use or 15,000 miles—which service facilities and automobile manufacturers agree is suitable for reuse in automobile air conditioners requiring service.  And by undertaking this assignment, auto service centers can not only save on new refrigerant purchases, but also can charge a fee for the operation.

Filtering refrigerants during servicing of appliances is less well-established than it is for automobiles, which generally have much larger charges of CFCs and require refills more often because of leaks.  Recovery and processing of the refrigerants from small appliances is slower and more troublesome—often requiring temporary installation of valves to collect the tiny CFC charges from small-diameter refrigerant loops—and appliance manufacturers have been less enthusiastic, for technical reasons, than auto makers on reusing refrigerants.

A process higher up the refining ladder—reclamation—is said to restore CFCs to a good-as-new state that allows their use in any air conditioning or refrigeration product designed to use CFCs.  Reclamation is a distillation process that removes impurities more extensively than filtering equipment does, including oil, moisture, and sometimes acidity and other CFCs. (Mixing CFCs can be a significant problem, sometimes turning a batch of potentially recyclable material into a hazardous waste that requires high-temperature incineration at a cost of about $6 a pound, notes Lucas of Refrigerant Reclaim.)

Several of the major domestic chemical manufacturers are already involved in CFC reclamation activities, but so are many smaller companies, including Omega Refrigerant Reclamation (Whittier, Calif.), which has been reclaiming CFCs purchased from and tolled for air conditioning contractors for 30 years, and sees room for the business to grow. In fact, Dennis O'Meara, the firm's general manager, estimates that about 17 million pounds of CFC refrigerants will be reclaimed in 1993—quite a bit, but far less than the billion pounds sold annually or the several hundred million pounds used each year for service work.

Refrigerant Reclaim is a more recent entrant in the reclamation business, manufacturing CFC recovery and filtering equipment and providing CFC recovery training in addition to actually reclaiming refrigerants.  The firm gets some refrigerants by performing on-site CFC collection for a fee, accepting requests from clients with at least 20 or 30 appliances that need to be drained.  Refrigerant Reclaim also buys CFCs brought in by customers with their own recovery equipment.  Once the refrigerants—the firm handles about 10,000 pounds a month—have been reclaimed and tested by an independent lab, they are sold to air conditioning contractors, wholesalers, and auto garages.

Reclaimed CFCs typically sell for anything from half the price of new refrigerants to the same price as their primary counterparts, according to various reclaimers. But Lucas notes that this year, new production of CFC-12 (also known as R-12, the most common refrigerant in automobile air conditioners and home refrigerators) faces a tax of $3.35 per pound, an added cost that reclaimed CFCs are not subject to. With this tax, he says, the price for new CFC-12 hit close to $6 during the autumn of last year, and could reach around $12 in 1993.

While the prices for reclaimed refrigerants are expected to rise along with those for new CFCs, reclaiming the chemical isn't cheap. The process costs about $1.85 to $4.50 per pound, depending on the particular refrigerant, says Lucas, who points out that, whereas recovery-only equipment costs about $500 and a recovery/filtering system might run $2,000 to $6,000, reclamation equipment costs around $250,000.

Take the Plunge?

So what's the moral of the story?  What kind of involvement—if any—should scrap recyclers undertake in the business of recycling CFCs?

Part of the problem in answering this question is that the facts are not complete; as of this writing, the Environmental Protection Agency's regulations governing CFC reclamation practices, standards for equipment used in CFC recycling, and the handling of CFCs from goods headed for recycling were not complete.

In any case, even after the regulations are in and scrap recyclers have a better picture of what might be expected of them, the answer is likely to be mixed. Those recycling cars or appliances with CFCs may see the collection as more troublesome than it's worth, but, then again, they may be able to charge for the service, and rising CFC prices may add incentives as supplies dwindle and prices rise.

What Are CFCs?

First developed in the 1930s, CFCs are man-made chemicals composed of chlorine, carbon, and fluorine.  The heat transfer characteristics of these colorless chemicals, most of which are gases at room temperature, make them effective refrigerants, and they are relatively inexpensive, stable, nontoxic, noncorrosive, and nonflammable—unlike the chemicals they replaced as refrigerants, such as ammonia and sulfur dioxide.

CFCs have also been widely used to inflate both open- and closed-cell foams used for cushioning and insulation, such as in car seats and appliance wall panels, and as propellants in aerosol cans. Because of their environmental threat (see "Too Much Sun" on page XXX), these compounds have already been pushed out of the foam and propellant business, where replacements were fairly easy to find, and are now rapidly being removed from refrigerant use in new equipment, though, here, substitution has proved more difficult.                                            —J.B.

Too Much Sun

The trouble with CFCs is that they eventually break down in the atmosphere, releasing chlorine, which reacts with and destroys ozone, a compound that shields the earth from harmful ultraviolet radiation, explains Joe Bufalini, chief of the gas kinetics and photochemistry branch of the EPA's Atmospheric and Exposure Research and Assessment Lab (Research Triangle Park, N.C.). This is said to lead to increased skin cancer and might destroy plankton in the oceans.

CFCs are capable of wreaking such havoc because they have what Bufalini calls a long atmospheric life span.  "Just about any compound with an atmospheric lifetime of greater than two to three years can get into the stratosphere"—the atmospheric layer that lies about 10 to 20 miles above the earth's surface—through the mechanisms of turbulence and diffusion, says Bufalini. Two very common refrigerants, CFC-12  and CFC-11, have atmospheric lifetimes of about 100 and 75 years, respectively, he says.

The chlorine atoms released by the CFCs can only be neutralized if they react with methane or other compounds in the atmosphere.  But in the stratosphere they're more likely to meet and react with ozone, beginning a chain reaction in which an individual chlorine atom "can kill hundreds of ozones," explains Bufalini.

According to EPA estimates "ozone loss of 3.5 percent globally has already been recorded and is greatest over Antarctica, where a seasonal ozone 'hole' occurs."  Bufalini says research suggests that even if the release of CFCs was stopped immediately, damage to the ozone layer would continue until about 2030 because of the refrigerants currently in the atmosphere.

For further details on the destruction of atmospheric ozone, call the EPA's Stratospheric Ozone Information Hotline at 800/296-1996.     —J.B.

A new federal law and a likely shortage of chlorofluorocarbons in the near future are presenting potential opportunities in the area of CFC recycling.
  • 1993
  • Jan_Feb

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