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Commercial fridges come out of the cold

The issue of end-of-life disposal for commercial refrigeration has long been challenging the recycling industry. BReSynergy’s recycling centre is about to tackle this head on, reports Maxine Perella

The regulations that apply to commercial fridges aren’t nearly as robust compared to those for domestic fridges. While the latter are subject to strict recovery standards imposed under the WEEE Directive, this traditionally has not been the case with commercial models, and it has allowed questionable treatment routes to be pursued.

The issue mainly centres around the most difficult phase of fridge recycling: the recovery of the solvent blowing agents used in the polyurethane foam insulation which encases refrigeration equipment. These gases comprise various types, including chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) and hydrocarbons, and each poses a different environmental danger.

In recent years, a shift by European refrigeration manufacturers to use the hydrocarbon cyclopentane as an alternative blowing agent in place of CFCs, HFCs and HCFCs, has presented reprocessors with a new set of challenges, especially those using traditional treatment technology. While cyclopentane is not ozone-depleting nor does it have much global warming potential, it is highly flammable and can be explosive when mixed with air.

Until recently, it was not made clear that its presence in refrigeration equipment rendered these waste units hazardous. But in December 2012 the Environment Agency (EA) judged it to be the case and reclassified all hydrocarbon-blown foam contained within such fridges as hazardous waste.

This has effectively put a new duty on fridge recyclers to separate such foam during disassembly using an ‘intrinsically safe’ process which controls the concentration of cyclopentane during the shredding process to reduce the risk of explosion or fire.

That said, the EA has failed to clarify exactly what ‘intrinsically safe’ means, leaving many reprocessors confused as to what treatment techniques to employ, or invest in. In response to this, one recycler has taken a proactive stance and is building what it claims to be the UK’s first ‘intrinsically safe’ fridge processing plant using BATRRT (Best Available Treatment, Recovery and Recycling Techniques) guiding principles.

“We are the only ones gearing up to treat large commercial cabinets to the same standard as domestic refrigeration units”

Director Sean Allinson-Bulman

Leicester-based BReSynergy’s business development director Gordon Mason says: “This plant will offer the most efficient method of treating all the hydrocarbons as no mechanical process will be utilised prior to the [fridge] cabinet entering the shredder.”

He explains that most fridge plants in the UK are geared for domestic fridges, which are far smaller in size than commercial models. A standard 12ftcommercial display cabinet needs to be cut up so it can be fed into a shredder, risking the release of hydrocarbons in the process.

So BReSynergy has devised is a front-end lift system that can load an entire 12ft cabinet into an encapsulated pre-shredding system and into a cross flow shredder.

The atmosphere inside the shredder has to be monitored to ensure that the set lower explosion limit of 2% is not reached (every flammable gas has a limit above which there is a risk of explosion) while the hydrocarbon gas is being released. A cryogenic condensation unit allowing the injection of liquid nitrogen to remove the oxygen, and thus explosion risk, has been built into the plant to deal with this.

Director Sean Allinson-Bulman says: “We are the only ones gearing up to treat large commercial cabinets to the same standard as domestic refrigeration units. The front end is where the additional expense and R&D went, it took us two years to develop from conception.”

The plant is currently being assembled at BReSynergy’s Leicester site, but was originally built at another site in Newcastle where it underwent successful trials. That site was consequently discovered to be unsuitable for accommodating such a large piece of kit.

The company expects the new build to be up and running within the next four months. Allinson-Bulman says the facility already has the backing of several major supermarket chains.

He explains that the average lifespan of a commercial fridge is six to eight years; with hundreds of supermarket stores across the country, that is a lot of volume to deal with.

According to Mason, the plant will also be able to offer new levels of efficiency once operational because it will be capable of processing one commercial cabinet alongside six domestic appliances.

“The process time, I believe, is around 25 seconds. We will be able to process 192 cabinets and 1,152 domestic cooling appliances in an eight-hour shift,” he says.

“The best domestic fridge plants can process 1,000 appliances in an eight-hour shift. This means we can improve on standard efficiency by some 15% and process a further 192 cabinets.”

Another first, BReSynergy claims, will be at the back end, where the dust generated from the breakdown of the waste polyurethane foam will be sent onto a pyrolysis plant for energy recovery. Typically this dust is landfilled as it’s hard to reclaim any further use from it, but Mason says the intention is to avoid this. 

“Ultimately we aim to have our own pyrolysis plant on-site to produce our own energy by our own recovery. Even by sending it away to a third party we are still ahead of the curve and this will give us 100% recycling and recovery. The industry figure is normally around 90-95%.”

Allinson-Bulman adds that a more immediate plan may be to briquette the foam dust to enable more volume to be loaded onto a truck, though he acknowledges that this could prove tricky to achieve. However, he maintains that the plant will enable separate recovery of a number of material streams including non-ferrous metals, printed circuit boards, cables and different densities of plastics.

BReSynergy believes that its one-stop technology sees it ideally placed to win favour among a growing number of responsibly-minded waste producers. It should also help drive higher safety levels across the fridge recycling sector as a whole, a development that would be much welcomed by industry leaders and regulators alike.


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