Brian Conners likes to break things down. “I am a manufacturing engineer,” he says. “But I like taking things apart, rather than building them.” He’s got the perfect job. Conners is president and chief operating officer of ARCA Advanced Processing, which runs a hulking 40-foot shredder that can chomp down one two-door refrigerator-freezer to chip-sized bits every 50 seconds, or 600 of them per day. “Think of it as a giant paper shredder,” he says.
Showing Its Teeth: Think of the 40-foot recycling behemoth as a giant paper shredder. Knives like these can cut up a refrigerator to chip-sized bits in 50 seconds.
Speed is only one of the machine’s virtues. Americans junk about nine million refrigerators and freezers every year. Most are recycled for metals at auto shredders along with cars. As a result, the plastics and the insulating foam, suffused with blowing agents like the ozone-depleting Freon and potent greenhouse gases, end up in landfills and in the atmosphere. The shredder can recover approximately 95 percent of the insulating foam and the harmful gasses in it. “The environmental benefit of treating the foam is tremendous,” he says.
GE partnered with Conners’ joint-venture partner, Appliance Recycling Centers of America, in 2009. GE ships to Conners old refrigerators from customers who buy a new one from The Home Depot and other retailers connected to GE’s vast appliance distribution network. Since last summer, the shredder recycled 100,000 refrigerators and fridges, diverting 5.5 million pounds of foam and plastics from landfills for reuse. Pellets of the “degassed” foam, for example, can be used as fuel in cement manufacturing. “GE is the first and only appliance manufacturer to implement the EPA’s Responsible Appliance Disposal Program,” says Mark Vachon, GE’s vice president for ecomagination. “We are reducing emissions of ozone depleting substances, greenhouse gasses and the amount of waste entering our landfills, and protecting our air and water.”
Conners’ plant is in Philadelphia, but on a typical day trucks haul in old fridges from a dozen eastern states between Vermont and North Carolina. “They don’t come in at the same rate every day,” Conners says. “In the summer and during the holiday season we get more. But we take all brands.” Workers at the recycling plant first remove cords, shelves, the refrigerant and oil from the compressor.
A conveyor belt takes the empty fridge shell inside a sealed vacuum chamber, where large knives made from hardened steel cut it to bits one and half inches long. The machine then mechanically sorts out the different materials. Air suction hoods pull off the foam, magnets handle steel, and special “eddy current separators” handle aluminum and copper. The final recycling product, plastics, exits in large bags.
The recycling machine automatically pumps out the harmful gasses trapped in the shredding chamber and cools them down with liquid nitrogen to minus 90 degrees Celsius. At that freezing temperature, the gasses turn into liquids. The shredder bottles the liquefied gasses in tanks, and workers ship them for destruction to a special incinerator in Arkansas. “It’s the cutting edge of technology,” Conners says.