On sweltering, hot days, nothing feels better than to sprawl in front of a chilly air conditioner. Air conditioners make it possible to live comfortably indoors during hot spring and summer months.
One of the downsides of owning an air conditioner, though, is disposing of it. Our world is long past the days when a person can toss an A/C in the trash in good conscience—or even legally.
But is it really that harmful and why? If so, how do you dispose of these bulky appliances the correct way?
Why A/Cs Need to be Disposed of Correctly
Disposing of an air conditioner means disposing of around 65 pounds of plastic, copper, aluminum, stainless steel, and a host of other non-biodegradable materials. If your A/C has a paper filter, that just might be the only biodegradable material on the unit.
These materials have a big enough impact on our environment. But the worst material in A/Cs is one that you cannot see: refrigerants.
Older air conditioners contain particularly hazardous chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) as their refrigerant. These were phased out in 1995. The industry then switched to halogenated chlorofluorocarbons, with HCFC-22 (or, R-22) most widely used.
R-22's phase-out period began in 2010. Production of all R-22-based air conditioners stopped for good in 2020. But many air conditioners that are still operating use R-22 refrigerant.
Even the newest, safest refrigerant, R410a, is harmful. While R410a is considered to be less hazardous than the older R22 refrigerants, one kilogram of R410a still has the same impact on the environment as running your car for six months.
What's the Law?
To ease up on ozone depletion and minimize climate change, the U.S. government has made it illegal to dispose of air conditioners without first reclaiming the refrigerants.
Equipment used to reclaim the refrigerants must meet performance standards. Anyone technically qualified can reclaim refrigerants; they do not have to be certified HVAC technicians.
Local authorities may have additional requirements for correctly disposing of air conditioners.
Air Conditioner Disposal Options
The EPA's Responsible Appliance Disposal (RAD) program partners with companies and groups that agree to send appliances like air conditioners to facilities that will environmentally recycle them.
Currently, 77 facilities across 32 states are part of the EPA's RAD program. These facilities have qualified technicians and equipment to safely reclaim refrigerants.
Air Conditioner Bounty Program
Check with your local utility company to see if they have an air conditioner or refrigerator bounty program, or turn-in program. Often, utilities pay customers a small stipend, rebate, or discount to recycle their inefficient appliances. Sometimes, these rebates are good for newer, efficient models that fall under the EPA's EnergyStar program.
Consult Local Disposal Agency
Some municipalities have curbside pickup programs for air conditioners and other appliances. The municipalities subcontract disposal through private parties. The chain may continue to responsible refrigerant disposal facilities or the units may be exported to developing countries for reuse.
Local Debris Hauling Company
Many debris hauling companies will pick up the pile of trash in your driveway—including air conditioners—and take it away for you. But they may just end up dropping the appliance in the landfill.
A smaller subset of trash haulers will properly recycle and dispose of the air conditioner in accordance with all local and federal guidelines. Check their websites, plus call and verify that they will actually do this.
Donate Air Conditioner
Old air conditioners that are still in good working shape can be donated to those in need. People over age 65 are especially prone to heat-related problems. Shelters for people experiencing homeless, too, might be in need of portable air conditioners.
Donate directly or go through a local aid coordination group. Non-profits and faith-based groups often know of people in need, too. Just be sure not to donate pre-2010 air conditioners with R-22 refrigerants, to avoid passing the problem of harmful older refrigerants to someone else.
What About HVAC Systems?
Properly disposing of portable or window air conditioners by yourself is one thing. But what about large central air conditioners or single-zone mini-splits? Are old systems properly disposed of by the HVAC companies?
Yes, they are. Or at least, they should be. Under Section 608 of the Clean Air Act, HVAC companies, or parties that they contract with, must reclaim all refrigerants. Companies must keep detailed records for later certification to the EPA.
In fact, companies can earn money by selling the recovered refrigerant to an EPA-certified refrigerant reclaimer.
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Disposing of Appliances Responsibly. United States Environmental Protection Agency.
Older Adults and Extreme Heat. Centers For Disease Control and Prevention.
Residential Air Conditioning and the Phaseout of HCFC-22: What You Need to Know. United States Environmental Protection Agency
Section 608 of the Clean Air Act: Stationary Refrigeration and Air Conditioning. United States Environmental Protection Agency.