How to Recycle a Refrigerator

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on January 06, 2023

If your old fridge is on the verge of breaking down, or still works but less efficiently, it’s time to look for a newer, more energy-efficient option. While you’re looking to replace your old appliance, keep in mind that discarding it responsibly is better for the environment. While recycling refrigerators is not as straightforward as tossing them into a bin, there are a few options you can explore to dispose of them responsibly.

This article explains how to get rid of a refrigerator, the different materials used in making one, and the advantages of refrigerator recycling.

What Materials Does a Refrigerator Contain?

Can you recycle refrigerators? The answer to this is yes, but carefully. Refrigerators and freezers contain materials like refrigerants, oils, and chemicals that, per U.S. law, must be removed before they’re scrapped. Refrigerants such as freon undergo a continuous cycle of phase transition between liquids and gasses to cool the entire fridge.

As refrigerators have many mechanical parts, they contain lubricant oils that ease the friction between these parts and make sure they operate without any glitches. Current refrigerator compressors contain synthetic oils like alkylbenzene and polyolester.

Refrigerant poisoning could occur if you inhale it either intentionally or accidentally and could cause severe brain and lung damage. Refrigerant oils, polychlorinated biphenyls and mercury pose serious health risks. Refrigerators manufactured before 2000 contain mercury switches, while those manufactured before 1979 contain polychlorinated biphenyls.

The foam in refrigerators manufactured before 2005 contain blowing agents that are classified as ozone-depleting substances — chemicals that deplete the ozone layer and increase exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays on Earth. Appliances manufactured after 2005 are made of foam-blowing agents that are ozone-friendly.

Refrigerators also contain metals used for the structure. While one aspect of recycling fridges involves safely discarding harmful materials such as oils and refrigerants, another aspect is putting the metal to better use and possibly reusing it. For example, a typical refrigerator that’s roughly 10 years old contains as much as 120 pounds of steel. Sometimes, end-of-cycle traders can reuse the foam that lines the insides of a refrigerator as well.

Recycling your used products responsibly helps manufacturers reuse some of the refrigerator materials to make new ones. This is easier than procuring them through the usual channels and reduces the burden on the existing supply chain.

How to Recycle Fridges?

There are four ways you can recycle refrigerators:

Local municipal pickup. Many local municipal bodies offer to pick up heavy items like refrigerators and recycle them responsibly. You can contact your local body to check if you can use their services. Some municipal agencies offer pickup services, where all you have to do is keep your old refrigerator curbside.

You may have to make an appointment with your municipal office, while others may ask you to leave your appliance at the nearest transfer station or landfill. Sometimes, municipalities may only accept your appliance after the refrigerants are removed from it. In such cases, you can approach a professional near you to remove it before you drop it off.

Check for Energy Star partners. Several retailers partner with programs like the U.S. EPA’s RAD, which stands for Responsible Appliance Disposal. This is a voluntary program where manufacturers, retailers, and state agencies take the onus upon themselves to recycle older products. You can check whether a manufacturer or retailer is a participant in this program, and, if so, contact them to drop off your product or have it picked up.

As RAD partners, manufacturers dispose of ozone-depleting substances responsibly, break down harmful chemicals, and reclaim foam, metals, and reusable plastics for further use. Other harmful substances like mercury and refrigerant oils are disposed of appropriately. Some retail companies and manufacturers offer to pick up your old refrigerator when you buy a new product from them, while others offer a cash rebate when purchasing a new one.

You can look for an assurance from your retailer that your old product will be disposed of responsibly instead of being resold at a throwaway price. While most retailers and dealers will pick up appliances without any charge, some may ask for a small fee (around $10 to $50).

Approach your local scrap dealer. You can approach a nearby scrap dealer to check whether they use approved processes to recycle old refrigerators.

Check with local service providers. State energy offices, electric, and water utility companies run programs that offer pick-up services for heavy trash items such as refrigerators. You can reach out to these bodies to check if your product qualifies for such programs.

Some utility companies (usually electricity providers) sponsor “bounty programs.” If you own an appliance that qualifies for such a program, you may be eligible to get paid a bonus to allow the recycler to collect the product. Other times, you may get discounts or rebates if you choose to buy a new product from an Energy Star partner in exchange for your old product. You can check with your local electricity provider whether they can accept your product based on whether it’s working, its age, dimensions, and model.

Advantages of Recycling Refrigerators

While “how to dispose a refrigerator” is a common question, many also wonder what happens to their appliances after they are discarded. This typically depends on the condition of the appliance. Working appliances are restored and resold. But as appliances get old, they become less efficient and utilize more energy, which is why recycling is a better option.

Components such as the compressor oils and refrigerants are removed, while the plastic linings, glass shelves, and polyurethane foam are sent to landfills. Metal components are usually reused for other applications and may even find their way to another similar appliance.

There are environmental and financial advantages of recycling refrigerators, some of which are mentioned below:

  • By choosing to recycle, you reduce the emission of harmful substances that impact the Earth’s ozone layer.
  • You reduce energy utilization by discarding older, less efficient models.
  • When mercury from refrigerators enters the environment unchecked, it collects in plant and animal tissues. When humans eat food containing mercury (called mercury poisoning), it impedes neurological development and impacts the nervous system. Removing mercury from refrigerators prevents such health effects.
  • When polychlorinated biphenyls are not properly disposed of, they can cause cancer and impact the nervous system, immune system, and reproductive system.
  • Refrigerator oils leaking from landfills may contaminate groundwater and can harm your skin, eye, and respiratory system. Long-term contact with such oils can damage your liver, reproductive system, and brain, and cause cancer.

Show Sources

Consumer Energy Alliance: “What to Do with Old Appliances.”
Energy Star: “Find a Fridge or Freezer Recycling Program.”
Mount Sinai: “Refrigerant Poisoning.”
Refrigeration Service Engineers Society: “Oil In Refrigeration Systems.”
U.S. Environment Protection Agency: “Frequently Asked Questions about Safe Disposal of Refrigerated Household Appliances,” “Responsible Appliance Disposal (RAD).”

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