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The Evolution of Fridge Recycling in the UK: From Waste to Sustainability

Dan Cronin, EMR UK Commercial Manager

Dan Cronin onsite at fridge recycling facility

Have you ever thought about what happens to your fridge after it has broken down or been replaced? Thanks to 30 years of technical innovation, growing environmental awareness and regulatory progress, the UK is now a global leader in fridge recycling.

And with good reason.

Fridges contain a number of potentially hazardous chemicals, which can harm people, damage local environments, and even accelerate climate change. By working alongside manufacturers, policymakers and some of our industry’s most talented engineers and scientists, recyclers such as EMR have transformed their approach to fridge recycling, setting an example for sustainable waste management worldwide.

It's an inspiring story.

Early challenges and environmental concerns

Up until the 1990s, fridges were often discarded without much thought. This was disastrous for the environment as these appliances used harmful substances as refrigerants, including chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), and other ozone-depleting and greenhouse gases. From the late 1970s to the mid-1980s, research scientists discovered with horror that a ‘hole’ had developed in the ozone layer and that CFCs and HCFCs were likely to blame. An international ban in their use came into force in 1989 via the Montreal Protocol. Manufacturers replaced CFCs with the less-harmful pentane gas, but recyclers faced a decades-long job of carefully and safely recycling appliances that contained these harmful chemicals.

The fridge recycling industry was born.

Introduction of regulations

In response to the environmental risks posed by discarded fridges, the UK government has consistently been introducing stricter regulations.

One noteworthy milestone was in 2007, when the UK implemented the WEEE Regulations.

This has the central aim of reducing the amount of WEEE sent to landfill and introduced the system we have today, which sees manufacturers of electric and electronic equipment contributing towards the cost of recycling , thus creating financial incentives for them to design products that are easier to recycle and have fewer hazardous components. In turn, this makes the recycling of them more achievable.

Six years later, Environment Agency guidance designated pentane fridges as hazardous waste, which means they have to be sent to specialist disposal facilities for treatment.

These policy drivers enabled recyclers like EMR, to build specialist facilities to recycle fridges and recover the valuable materials they contain, while neutralising any hazardous substances. And, with upcoming changes to the Basel Convention, which will limit export of these valuable materials outside the UK, recyclers like EMR have to continuously invest in innovation to stay ahead.

Innovations in recycling technology

Automated dismantling systems – which could efficiently separate different materials including plastics, metals, and polyurethane foam – as well as advanced refrigerant recovery techniques - were developed to capture and safely manage the harmful gases within old fridges.

The future of fridge recycling

As pentane (a chemical harmful to humans and the environment) has replaced CFCs and HCFCs, the proper disposal and recycling of fridges in a way that minimises environmental impacts has remained a priority. Further innovations in material recovery, waste reduction, and greenhouse gas emission reduction are always ongoing areas of research and development, too.

Advanced robotics and more efficient material handling and recycling processes is revolutionising fridge recycling. The focus for world-leading fridge recyclers, such as EMR, will shift to enhancing the recovery rates of valuable materials and finding new ways to reduce the carbon footprint associated with our recycling operations.

From the days when fridges were carelessly disposed of, to the technically advanced sustainable businesses of today, the past 30 years has proven how much the UK’s waste management industry can achieve. As we confront further environmental challenges on the path to net-zero, the legacy of fridge recycling will stand as a symbol of progress toward a greener future.