Recleim procures refrigerators, freezers, washing machines, dryers, dishwashers, heating and air conditioning units, and any other household appliances that are being discarded. These old appliances undergo a de-manufacturing process at this environmentally-focused appliance recycling company to deliver an output of various commodities including steel, copper, aluminum, plastic, and other materials.
“We use the term de-manufacturing because our facilities are run like manufacturing environments. We believe in lean principles; we use Six Sigma,” says CEO Steve Bush of the company’s procedures for process improvement, “and they are typically indoor facilities. We’re really trying to get as much of the material out of these appliances and into some sort of reuse as we can. Our goal is that ninety-five percent of the weight of the appliances goes back into some sort of recycling stream versus being put into a landfill.”
The unique aspect of Recleim’s operations is the way in which it handles polyurethane foam. If an appliance was manufactured prior to 1995, it is likely that chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) refrigerant was used as the blowing agent to insert the foam throughout the cabinet and get it to quickly expand to create the layer of insulation. CFC refrigerants have since been banned because they are greenhouse gases that damage the ozone layer when released into the environment.
Although there are recycling regulations in the United States that require the extraction of harmful fluid refrigerants from the cooling circuits of appliances and HVAC, there are no federal laws to enforce the same rules when it comes to the refrigerants trapped inside the foam. Another problem is that within the industry, it is less understood that the same CFC refrigerant is trapped inside the bubbles of the foam.
“If you were to take a regular refrigerator and take it to a recycler and they just shred it, they can release up to two pounds of CFC gas trapped inside the bubbles of the foam,” Bush says, but Recleim has an innovative solution to this problem. “We agitate the foam inside our shredding process and extract all of that gas, and then, in most of our plants, we take the gases trapped inside the foam and use a catalytic process to actually destroy the CFC refrigerant at 99.99 percent efficiency, which meets Montreal protocol.” This international treaty was agreed upon in 1987 and laid out a plan to phase out substances that deplete the ozone layer.
Recleim also provides a service to investor-owned utilities around the country that have energy-efficiency programs designed to encourage replacing old energy-inefficient appliances. Recleim acts as an agent call center to arrange meetings with the utility companies’ customers to remove their old refrigerators after upgrading to newer models.
After initially evaluating an investment opportunity to start a recycling business in Canada, the two entrepreneurs who founded the company quickly shifted their attention toward the United States where the recycling industry was more fragmented. The year was 2012, and many appliances at the time were disposed of by small recycling shops or scrapyards, and regulations were not as clear as they are today.
“In general, recycling and scrap had this seedy connotation, cash exchanging hands over a tailgate, and whatever happens after that nobody knows. What we wanted to do was provide a company that would have contracts, insurance, and indemnification and have much more of a corporate feel,” says Bush.
As the founders were both from small towns, they ambitiously focused on distressed areas that could benefit from an efficient recycling operation. “We decided that once we were going to launch this recycling company, we needed to locate it in a place that would provide not only a benefit to the environment but also benefit from a social perspective to the place we agreed to locate,” explains Bush.
Graniteville, South Carolina was the company’s first home. The small mill town was already experiencing a collapse in its economy after a freight train derailed and caused one of the worst chemical spills in U.S. history. The town lost thousands of its jobs and had nearly been abandoned before Recleim worked to restore the community. Since expanding the company into various states outside of South Carolina, it has maintained its vision to uplift communities along with the environment. Without exception, it chooses to locate in distressed areas and focus on hiring local people.
Recleim has twelve locations in the U.S., primarily east of Mississippi, and plans to expand further west in the next couple of years, beginning with Dallas. Three of these sites are de-manufacturing facilities, and the other nine are logistics hubs used to manage collected appliances. For the last three years, the company has been named in the annual rankings of Inc. Magazine’s five hundred fastest-growing privately-held companies in the U.S., peaking at 101 on the list.
A recent challenge is that the commodity markets are under pressure due to tariffs and the global uncertainty driven by the trade war between the U.S. and China. The company has seen the price of steel and other materials generated from appliances drop significantly in the last year and a half. However, the main day-to-day hurdle is to raise awareness about the two pounds of CFC gas trapped inside the foam of older refrigerators and to educate people about the environmental damage of sending these appliances to a landfill.
Even if the rest of the appliance is recycled, it is important to properly dispose of the foam to prevent ozone-depleting gases from being released into the atmosphere. Unfortunately, there is currently no law in the U.S. preventing people from discarding appliances in landfills, and this is still a relatively common occurrence.
In Europe, recyclers are more advanced than in the U.S. since there is limited land mass. The founders of Recleim travelled to Europe before establishing the company to learn about efficient recycling, and they brought these innovative ideas and European technologies back to the U.S. “The biggest differentiator in our recycling process is how we handle those gases. We either capture the gas directly in the recycling process or we use liquid nitrogen to take that blowing agent and convert it into a liquid so that it can be captured and sent to one of our destruction facilities.”
By using manufacturing techniques in reverse to de-manufacture appliances, Recleim can separate, capture, and recycle more of each unit than a typical recycling operation. “We have multiple kinds of sorting technologies on the backside of our recycling lines so that we’re able to separate copper and aluminum and plastic into sellable commodities. We really strive to increase the purity level of our commodity outputs because we believe the purer the recycled commodity we can get, the better we’ll be paid for it.”
As Recleim expands throughout the U.S., it remains dedicated to its founding values of pursuing locations in economically distressed areas. It bases these important decisions on census tract and Opportunity Zone data. To empower and uplift the community, it hires employees locally to help with job demographics in the area. It is also committed to supporting local veterans in a variety of ways.
In the future, it plans to continue looking for new ways to improve its efficiency. This includes finding buyers for materials captured by the company’s de-manufacturing process that are not currently going into a recycle stream. For instance, Recleim is investing in research for waste to energy (WtE) opportunities that can utilize the processed foam. WtE would allow it to generate energy from its collected waste that cannot be recycled otherwise, instead of having to dispose of it into a landfill.
In addition to its goals of ongoing improvement, the company is actively educating the industry and the general population on how appliances should be properly recycled to ensure we are protecting the environment.
“The most important message is that appliances, especially refrigerators and freezers and any appliance that contains foam, have to be handled in an appropriate way, and that means you have to capture to gases that are trapped inside the bubbles of the foam, they should not be taken to a landfill or sent to a scrapyard that isn’t capable of capturing those gases,” Bush explains emphatically.
According to Project Drawdown, an organization of global scientists studying climate change and potential solutions, the leading way to mitigate climate change today is refrigerant management. Hopefully, Recleim’s method of recycling and its important message will continue to spread throughout the nation.