Since the 1987 signing of the Montreal Protocol -- an international agreement concerning destruction of Earth's ozone layer -- Freon use has been strictly regulated. If you have an old refrigerator or air conditioner that contains this refrigerant, and you want to throw it away, you must do it in accordance with a procedure mandated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The purpose of the procedure is to prevent the uncontrolled release of Freon into the atmosphere.
The Problem with Freon
Freon is the trade name for a class of refrigerant chemicals DuPont developed to replace the hazardous ones that were in use in the early 1930s. Scientists later discovered, however, that the chemicals -- chlorofluorocarbons -- migrate to the upper atmosphere, where they break down to release free chlorine atoms. Chlorine reacts with ozone in the upper stratosphere, turning it into molecular oxygen. This has serious consequences for life on Earth, because the ozone layer filters harmful ultraviolet sunlight. The brand name Freon also applies to other halocarbons that don't contain chlorine. These have other serious environmental effects, including the acceleration of global warming.
Appliances Containing Freon
You're aren't likely to have an old supply of Freon in your utility cupboard to throw away, but you must comply with Freon disposal regulations whenever you discard a refrigeration appliance. This includes refrigerators and freezers as well as home and automobile air conditioners -- basically any appliance that has a refrigeration coil. If you aren't sure if the unit contains Freon, check the label. Manufacturers of refrigeration equipment call it R-22 refrigerant. The regulations apply to earlier versions of Freon -- R-11 and R-12 -- but not to hydrofluorocarbons R-134a and R-410A.
Appliance Disposal Procedure
Only qualified technicians are permitted to remove Freon from an appliance. These technicians must pass an EPA-approved test and belong to an EPA-certified organization. It is illegal and environmentally irresponsible to empty a charged air conditioning system yourself, especially one that contains Freon. Before you take your old refrigerator or air conditioner to the dump, you must have it emptied by one of these trained technicians, who must then sign a form. The person who accepts the appliance at the dump needs a copy of this form to comply with EPA disposal regulations.
The refrigeration system in your old appliance may contain a refrigerant not covered by EPA disposal regulations, or it may be empty. If so, it's still a good idea to have it inspected and emptied -- if necessary -- by a certified disposal technician. The best way to avoid confusion and potential environmental damage is to contact the local waste facility and inquire about disposal procedures. Some facilities employ an EPA-certified technician, and they may be able to take the appliance as-is. If you're buying a new refrigerator of air conditioner, the dealer will often remove the old one as a service.