Extraction of refrigerants at Oeko-Service Schweiz AG in Rheinfelden
Temperature exchange equipment

Proud performance by three cutting-edge refrigerator recycling plants

What does recycling an old refrigerator have in common with driving to Singapore and back?

Owing to the technically advanced recycling plants run by Immark AG and E. Flückiger AG, which were put into operation in 2023, as well as the likewise recently commissioned plant run by Oeko-Service Schweiz AG, Switzerland now possesses what is likely the most modern fleet of plants in Europe. This has enabled record-high rates in the recovery of climate-damaging refrigerants and propellants.

25,000 km by car

Did you know that in an old refrigerator, most of the climate-damaging gases are not found in the compressor, but rather in the polyurethane (PU) foam insulation? And did you know that state-of-the-art recycling of this one refrigerator keeps an incredible amount of CO2 equivalents out of the atmosphere? This corresponds to around the same amount emitted by a petrol car during a journey from Zurich to Singapore and back (around 25,000 km). It’s hard to imagine, but it’s a fact.

The VFC refrigerants and propellants (volatile fluorinated carbons, volatile fluorinated compounds such as [H]CFC/HFC) contained in compressors and PU insulation foams have a global warming potential that exceeds that of CO2 by 1,000 to over 10,000 times. For this reason, as well as due to their ozone-layer-damaging effect, such substances should be removed from recycling and rendered non-hazardous by means of high-tech plants. Recovering the refrigerants and propellants, subsequently incinerating them at high temperatures and converting them into CO2 and into water, acids and salts (which have far less of an impact on the climate) makes a key contribution to environmental protection.

Figure 1: The fictitious car journey to Singapore and back corresponds to 25,000 km. The same amount of CO2 emissions can be avoided by recycling an old refrigerator. Image source: Google Earth

A brand new fleet of plants

2023 was a special year. The two new refrigerator recycling plants run by Immark AG in Aarwangen and E. Flückiger AG in Rothrist were approved by SENS and have steadily increased their production capacities. However, the Immark AG plant in Schattdorf was shut down at the end of February 2023. Together with the equally cutting-edge plant run by Oeko-Service Schweiz AG, around 440,000 appliances or around 22,700 tonnes across Switzerland were dismantled in 2023 into separate recyclables and hazardous substances with the highest processing quality. Record-high recovery rates were achieved for climate-damaging refrigerants and propellants. 

The following figures provide a glimpse into refrigerator demanufacturing at the three industrial recycling plants (Figures 2 – 5).

Figure 2: Extraction of refrigerants at Immark AG in Aarwangen (stage 1). Image source: Immark AG / Figure 3: Processing of the housings in a gas-tight shredder at E. Flückiger AG in Rothrist (stage 2). Image source: E. Flückiger AG
Figure 4: Extraction of refrigerants at Oeko-Service Schweiz AG in Rheinfelden (stage 1). Image source: Oeko-Service Schweiz AG / Figure 5: Overview of all groups resulting from stage 1 and stage 2 processing. Image source: Oeko-Service Schweiz AG

Complex processing in line with the state of the art

In temperature exchange equipment, the presence of climate-relevant substances requires processing in a highly specialised, gas-tight plant. We described the requirements in detail in the last technical report, and the FOEN enforcement guidelines for the ORDEE, which will be published soon, convey the state of the art in detail. Firstly (in stage 1), the refrigerant must be extracted from the compressors without any losses. After the emptied compressors have been removed, the appliance housing is dismantled into its corresponding groups using rotary shears as well as downstream magnetic and eddy current separators during stage 2. The PU foams undergo thermal processing using pellet presses or other heating elements (pore and matrix degassing). This controlled degassing and condensation of the propellants is performed at all three Swiss plants using mechanical refrigeration technology. The waste airflows from the plants are only released into the atmosphere after they have passed through various filtering units. The residual gas concentrations are constantly measured in line with the requirements set out in the Ordinance on Air Pollution Control (OAPC). All recovered refrigerants and propellants are collected in pressurised gas cylinders and fully incinerated as hazardous waste in high-temperature incineration plants.

20% still made up of climate-damaging VFC appliances

The proportion of waste, climate-damaging VFC appliances fell below the 50% limit for the first time in 2011. Since then, the proportion of VHC appliances (volatile hydrocarbons such as isobutane and cyclopentane) has been steadily increasing. However, the originally assumed rapid decrease in the proportion of VFC appliances did not materialize – only a slow reduction can actually be observed. The downward curve will therefore approach zero asymptotically over an extended period of time. During this investigation period, around 20% of waste equipment is still of the environmentally harmful type (24% and 19% for stage 1 and stage 2 respectively). Absorber systems containing ammonia, which are commonly used in hotel minibars, make up almost 2% of all waste refrigerators. See Graph 1.

Drop in disposal quantities regardless of the rise in overall plant performance

Increasingly higher proportions of VHC devices generally result in ever-lower absolute volumes of recovered gas mixtures due to the much lower VHC filling quantities in the compressors and VHC concentrations in the PU insulation. This trend is currently being stalled owing to the excellent separation performance of the new recycling plants amounting to over 95%. However, the quantities of refrigerant and propellant mixtures to be disposed of will continue decreasing in the future, even with the cutting-edge fleet of plants and with the recovery efficiency remaining high and far exceeding the required target values of 90% (see Graph 2).

The following recovery quantities were achieved per appliance in 2023:

  • Refrigerant mixture VFC/VHC: 68 g (previous year: 53 g)
  • Propellant mixture VFC/VHC: 51 g/kg PU foam (previous year: 35 g)
  • Compressor oil: 148 g (previous year: 118 g)