Where old B.C. fridges go to die, and are reborn

That buzz-whirr-chug-a-chug you hear from your aging fridge could be your appliance praying to the recycling gods, begging to be reincarnated as a stainless steel wonder with humidity control and icemaker.

Break it to them gently. If your decrepit, energy-guzzling fridge is euthanized in B.C., you get 30 bucks and your fridge is likely to come back as rebar.

According to John Rai of Richmond Steel, the Mitchell Island firm tasked with shredding fridges and shipping the diced remains to a Seattle-area smelter, recycled appliance metals come back as the stuff that gives concrete its backbone.

In fact, much of the rebar – shorthand for reinforcing bar – produced from recycled appliances and other junked metals at the Nucor Steel smelter a few years ago went to the construction of the SkyTrain Canada Line. Perhaps that'll provide some comfort to your 1970s-era Frigidaire.

Any way you slice it, fridges in B.C. stand a fantastic chance at reincarnation, thanks to a BC Hydro Fridge Buy-back Program that has recycled 169,936 fridges since it went B.C.-wide in 2003. That's an estimated 143-gigawatt hour savings, or enough electricity to power about 13,000 homes for a year.

Fridges from all over B.C (almost)

Kathy Bremner is proud of the lengths BC Hydro and its Fridge Buy-Back Program partners go to encourage B.C. customers to send their inefficient fridges out to pasture.

According to Bremner, remote Atlin is about the only place in B.C. that the Fridge Buy-Back Program has not yet serviced. But it's not for lack of trying, and Bremner thinks Hydro may some day break that goose-egg and pick up a fridge from Atlin, a town of about 400 located in B.C.'s extreme northwest corner, closer to Whitehorse, Yukon than to any other B.C. city.

"The three people in Atlin who have contacted us have either changed their mind [about fridge pick-up] or haven't returned our calls," says Bremner, a residential operations manager with BC Hydro Power Smart. "They've probably used a transfer company that goes up to one of the territories to remove it."

Fridges from throughout B.C. are shipped to freon-extraction and recycling facilities in the Lower Mainland or on Vancouver Island. Even customers on Gulf Islands not serviced by ferries stand a chance at pickup. When enough fridges are available on a small island, BC Hydro arranges for a barge pickup.  And while it can take longer in rural areas, BC Hydro's recommendation is to arrange pickup once a minimum of six fridges are ready in a given area.

Tale of a dying fridge

BC Hydro uses various private partners, often moving companies looking to keep their drivers busy mid-month, to pick up the fridges. From there, the first stop is a freon recycling facility such as Richmond's Hazco, one of three such facilities BC Hydro uses in B.C.

Because freon is non-toxic, it has been the go-to refrigerant since its invention in 1928. The trouble is that freon is a mixture of several different chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, which deplete the ozone layer.

Hazco's role in BC Hydro's fridge recycling program is to line up the fridges and perform a group freon extraction. A hose is inserted into the back of each fridge and the freon is extracted and stored in a tank – the gas eventually shipped for use in new appliances.

Once the freon is removed, fridges are shipped across the Knight Street Bridge to Richmond Steel on Mitchell Island. It's there that a shredding mill – powered by a 1940s-era, 3,000-horsepower electric submarine motor built by GE – grinds it to bits. This is a shredder capable of shredding an intact truck in about two minutes.

Magnets draw the shredded metals from the foam and plastic remnants that will go to the landfill. The bulk of the fridge parts wind up in a massive pile on the Richmond Steel property that, from a short distance, looks like a massive pile of dirt or sawdust. Only up close can you tell that these are bits and pieces of metal.

While Richmond Steel accepts dryers, washers and other non-freon appliances from individual residents, it will only accept fridges from BC Hydro, the City of Vancouver and the City of Burnaby. The company shreds enough metal to send a barge each week to the Seattle smelter.

"We shred about 50 tonnes an hour," says Rai. "We ship a barge out every weekend, and each time we ship out a barge it's 4,000 tonnes."

On Vancouver Island, fridges picked up through the Fridge Buy-Back Program are shredded at Steel Pacific Recycling's operation in Victoria. The company accepts a long list of recyclable materials, but urges customers to contact them with questions about metals and other items not included on that list.

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