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updated 9/12/2012 12:56:31 PM ET 2012-09-12T16:56:31

Take an old refrigerator and picture 50 pounds of it going into a landfill. That's the norm -- with refrigerator insulation containing greenhouse and ozone-depleting gases. Americans toss around nine million refrigerators and freezers annually, making for one hot environmental mess. Enter a massive machine that’s turning fridges into fully reusable parts.

Extremely old fridges aren’t worth reusing due to the electricity they require.

"It's the equivalent of driving a 1965 car to work," said Brian Conners, the president and chief operating officer of ARCA Advanced Processing. "You can afford the car, you can’t afford to fuel it."

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ARCA Advanced Processing is a joint venture between the Appliance Recycling Centers of America and General Electric, formed to achieve best-in-class appliance recycling, Conners said. Its facility in Philadelphia applies ARCA’s technical recycling expertise to a stream of old appliances delivered by GE. Qualifying customers of the Home Depot and other retailers across 12 northeastern states who are buying new appliances can have their old ones removed no matter what the make or model. Those appliances come to the facility for recycling.

The 40-foot-tall refrigerator shredding machine, built by the Austrian company UNTHA Recycling Technology, is the only one of its size in the U.S. It began chewing up fridges last year in a process Conners compared to a large paper shredder.

First, the shelves are removed by hand, the electrical cord cut out, and both oil and refrigerant recovered. Then the appliance goes into an enormous vacuum-sealed chamber where sharp knives tear it apart. Finally, all the shredded components get mechanically separated.

“We use air to get the foam off, we use magnets to get the steel off, and we use something called ‘eddy current separators’ to get the aluminum off,” Conners said.

Steel pieces go to a mill, while aluminum and copper go to a company that turns them into motorcycle engines. Pelletized foam gets sent to a cement manufacturer, where it’s used as fuel for the kiln.

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The efficient URT machine can reduce one refrigerator to inch-and-a-half pieces in about 50 seconds, according to GE Reports. Only about 5 percent of the refrigerator insulation foam ends up as dust on the floor that can’t be recovered. Compare that to the industry average, which Conners said is about 35 percent going into landfills.

Since it was installed at ARCA Advanced Processing a year ago, the shredding machine has processed 100,000 refrigerators and freezers. Conners said he'd like to see the process to go national.

"Our goal is to do zero-landfill appliance recycling," he said. "We've gotten more than halfway to our goal by using this URT equipment."

© 2012 Discovery Channel

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