Household appliances, like all consumer goods, require energy and resources in their creation, operation, and disposal. Environmental consequences after disposal may include the introduction of greenhouse gases, heavy metals and toxic chemicals into the environment. Refrigerators, air conditioners, electronics, and fluorescent lighting products pose particular risks to the environment that should be kept in check; however, consumers should minimize the impact of all disposed goods by recycling as much of the durable materials as possible (metals, plastics, glass) and by making themselves aware of and recovering any harmful substances involved. This reduces the impact of landfill waste as well as further mining of increasingly scarce resources.
Cooling equipment, such as refrigerators, freezers, dehumidifiers and room air conditioners involve refrigerants and insulating foams that release ozone-depleting substances and greenhouse gases once in a landfill. Older appliances may also contain PCBs or mercury. Newer products (made within the past 10 years) do not contain these toxic materials and use refrigerants and foam blowing agents that are less harmful to the ozone layer, but they still contribute greenhouse gas emissions. Federal law requires the removal and proper disposal of refrigerants but not foam products.
Most municipalities will pick up your old refrigerator, freezer or air conditioner with the bulk trash pick-up (you must call the city to arrange a pick-up). By law, the city must must dispose of refrigerants, PCBs and mercury properly. But first, contact your utility and read below to see if there is a rebate or bounty program in your area.
Electronics, most notably televisions and computer monitors, involve a variety of recyclable and toxic materials, including plastics, glass, steel, gold, lead, mercury, cadmium beryllium, nickel, zinc, and brominated flame retardants, many of which can be recaptured and used again.
Several major electronics manufacturers have programs in place to accept their old hardware, usually as a trade-in upon purchase of a new unit. They are joined by retail stores, including Staples, Best Buy, Office Depot and Wal-Mart, who have programs to collect appliances such as computers, monitors, laptops, printers, faxes and all-in-ones for recycling in accordance with environmental laws.
A growing number of municipalities are offering e-waste recycling at their recycling drop-off centers. Contact your city or find a local e-waste recycling or donation program by visiting EPA's eCycling page.
Lighting equipment is generally not treated as toxic waste, but fluorescent lamps, including CFLs, are an exception because they contain trace amounts of mercury. Although not regulated at the federal level, several states ban the disposal of CFLs in household trash.
Many towns and cities offer recycling opportunities for CFLs at local recycling centers or transfer stations. A number of large retailers also provide collection bins for CFL recycling. State requirements and recycling opportunities vary. To find out what programs are available in your state or region, go to www.epa.gov/bulbrecycling. For more information about the risks of CFLs, read the ENERGY STAR Fact Sheet (PDF)
If you have a fluorescent fixture in your basement or workroom that was manufactured before 1979, the ballast may contain PCBs that must be disposed of responsibly under federal law. Go to www.lamprecycle.org for list of national lamp and ballast recyclers.
Your utility may even pay you to get rid of inefficient appliances. These programs usually involve an incentive on the order of $35 for the collection of old units, either in the form of cash or a rebate towards an ENERGY STAR replacement. A third party contractor that works with the utility will either come to you and pick up the appliance, or hold a turn-in event where you drop it of. Existing programs predominantly target old refrigerators; a few programs also offer a rebate for room air conditioners. Contractors ensure that the old units are disposed of properly.
Some companies that run bounty programs are ARCA Inc., JACO Environmental, and CSG. To bring a bounty program to your community, or for more information on bounty programs, try contacting your electricity provider, your local air protection government official, or the aforementioned companies.