Why You Shouldn’t Feel Bad About Recycling Old Appliances

December 6, 2017 | 2:16 pm
John Rogers
Energy Campaign Analytic Lead

Let’s face it: Deep down inside you, or maybe much closer to the surface, you’ve been wanting a new refrigerator, dishwasher, washer, or dryer. You’ve had your eye on that sweet little white/black/stainless beauty of a machine, and you’ve seen the holiday sales (pick a holiday, any holiday) come and go, with their “Save $200!… Free delivery!… Act now!” enticements… And yet you’ve stayed on the sidelines.

If what’s been holding you back is concern about what happens to old appliances, landfills and all, I’ve got great news for you: Chances are good that you’re better off if you upgrade, because energy efficiency progress means you can save plenty of money—and that all of us are also better off because that progress means your upgrade also cuts emissions, even when you take the bigger picture into account.

New appliances make financial sense

It should be really clear that new appliances can save you a bunch of money by saving energy (and more). Federal efficiency standards for fridges that came into place in 2014 meant electricity savings of 20-25% for most, and units qualified under the ENERGY STAR program offer at least another 9% savings.

For washing machines, ENERGY STAR-rated ones use 25% less energy and 45% less water than their conventional brethren, which means less money spent on both energy and water. Upgrading from a standard washing machine that’s 10 years old can actually save you more than $200 a year.

New appliances make environmental sense, too

So that’s the financial side of things. And we both know that’s important.

But we also both know that you’re about much more than that. You’re thinking about how that dishwasher doesn’t just magically appear, about how the old one doesn’t just vanish. You’re thinking about the implications from each stage of its life. So what about the carbon emissions, you say.

Thinking about what goes into producing and disposing of something makes a lot of sense, as long as you’re thinking about what goes into operating that same something during that long period between production and disposal (the life of the product).

And it makes even more sense to use data to help that thinking. (You’re a Union of Concerned Scientists type of person, after all; you just can’t help it.)

Fortunately, we’ve got that. Cooler Smarter, UCS’s book on where the carbon emissions come from in our lives—which of our consumer decisions have the most impact on how much CO2 we emit—has just the data you need. (In the appendices; we didn’t want to scare off other people.)

And what Cooler Smarter’s data tables show is that the emissions associated with producing and disposing of a range of appliances add up to less than the emissions associated with their use. A lot less actually: Using them can take 10-25 times as much energy as getting them there and getting rid of ‘em.

Getting Cooler Smarter about where the emissions come from, with data. Turns out that “Use Emissions” are usually the big piece. (Source: Cooler Smarter)

What that means is that if you can upgrade an appliance to one that’s more efficient, and particularly if your existing helper is more than a few years old, it’s probably really worth it not just from a financial perspective, but also in terms of carbon pollution.

That same principle, by the way, holds true for other energy users around your house: think lighting, for instance, where CFLs (compact fluorescent lights) or even newer LEDs (light-emitting diodes) in place of incandescent light bulbs can really quickly save you a bundle and pay back the emissions that went into make them. Or think vehicles, where recent years’ efficiency gains have been really impressive.

As it says in Cooler Smarter:

When there are highly efficient options for appliances, equipment, and vehicles, for instance, it almost always makes sense to junk energy hogs in favor of the most efficient models you can afford.

Four decades of progress in a box: Bigger fridges, more features, a lot less energy. (Source: ACEEE)

Old appliances can be reborn

For the disposal piece of the carbon equation, one key to making the math work for an appliance’s afterlife is to dispose of it the right way. While photos of piles of old appliances might be eye-catching—and disheartening—your old faithful dishwasher, washing machine, dryer, or fridge doesn’t have to suffer that ignominious end.

In fact, it’s a whole lot better if it doesn’t, and there are lots of ways to make it so. ENERGY STAR has a useful set of webpages on recycling old appliancesrefrigerators, clothes washers, other appliances, and more. It suggests, for example, that recycling can be through the store you’re buying the new appliance from, through your local utility, through your city or town, or via a scrap dealer.

How your old fridge gets new life (with the help of a Hammond B3 organ soundtrack) (Source: ENERGY STAR)

As for where the old appliance goes/how the materials find new life: Fridges are a useful, complex array of materials that provide useful insights (and fodder for graphics). ENERGY STAR has a handy video about all the pieces and how they get reborn. (The shredding part about two-thirds of the way through isn’t for the faint of heart, particularly the appliance-loving heart, but just remember that it’s all for the greater good.) And the efficiency program in top-ranked Massachusetts not only gives the lowdown on fridge recycling (and a cool infographic), but offers free removal and $50 to boot.

That new-life-for-old idea can work for other things, too. If it’s lights you’re swapping out, here are a few ideas on what to do with old incandescent light bulbs (sock-darning, for example). For vehicles, check out UCS’s cradle-to-grave analysis.

Don’t you deserve lower costs, more comfort, less pollution, more…?

A new washer and dryer set might not fit under the Christmas tree, but that shouldn’t keep you from upgrading. Neither should concerns about what happens to the old one, or where the new one comes from.

As Cooler Smarter‘s section on “stuff we buy” lays out, there’s a lot to be said for buying less, and buying smart. But efficiency gains change the equation for some things.

If you feel you deserve new appliances, you just might be right. And if you think that upgrading to much higher efficiency ones and recycling the old might be a good move, you’d definitely be right.

Energy efficiency truly is the gift that keeps on giving, for both the wallet and the planet.

So act now—retailers are standing by!

About the author

More from John

John Rogers is energy campaign analytic lead at the Union of Concerned Scientists with expertise in clean energy technologies and policies and a focus on solar, wind, and natural gas. He co-managed the UCS-led Energy and Water in a Warming World Initiative, a multi-year program aimed at raising awareness of the energy-water connection, particularly in the context of climate change, and motivating and informing effective low-carbon and low-water energy solutions.