Refrigerators can be difficult to recycle due to the foam that lines their doors—but Whirlpool has a solution, according to The Wall Street Journal (subscription).
What’s going on: “Whirlpool Corp. plans to replace the bulky polyurethane foam used to line its refrigerator doors with thinner, more energy-efficient vacuum sealed panels. The home appliance maker calls the switch the biggest innovation in refrigerator technology in the last 50 years.”
- The foam is hard to separate, which leads to difficulty in recycling. It also emits poisonous gases, so it cannot be incinerated.
Why it’s important: Whirlpool developed a polyurethane foam alternative, “a very porous powder—it’s about 95% air—that’s held in a vacuum,” company Executive Vice President of Corporate Relations & Sustainability Pam Klyn told the Journal.
- “And because this air has a much lower level of thermal conductivity, or simpler said, a higher level of insulation properties, that’s what allows it to be thinner, and still keep the food cold and keep the heat out.”
A total revamp: New insulation required an all-new appliance design, too, Klyn said.
- Of the $65 million Whirlpool invested in its Ottawa, Ohio, manufacturing facility, $16 million went toward refrigerator-door redesign. Why? In large part because it must “manag[e] this powder in a much different way than … we deal[t] with the foam. We have to redesign the entire refrigerator, all the structural components, the hinges, for example, every aspect of the refrigerator gets to be redesigned. So we’re starting with the door.”
What’s next: Given their size, refrigerators present a significant challenge in recycling—even when they don’t have polyurethane foam. But Whirlpool sees it as an opportunity, Klyn said.
- “[H]ow do we make sure [old refrigerators] get consolidated in a large enough volume to go to a recycling center in order to be managed in the proper way? I think there’s going to be some really interesting new ways that we leverage our partnerships with our trade partners there.”