America throws out some six million window air conditioners every year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. If yours will be joining those ranks as the summer winds down—maybe it’s broken, maybe after all this heat you’ve resigned to moving to the Yukon before June rolls around again—you should know that tossing an AC is not as simple as hauling the unit to the curb. In fact, it’s actually illegal to smuggle your AC to a landfill with the rest of your trash.
That’s because ACs contain refrigerant, which can contribute to climate change. In older appliances, these are chlorofluorocarbons (you might know them by their nickname, CFCs). Newer units contain hydrochlorofluorocarbons or hydrofluorocarbon. Yes, all of those names sound the same—don’t worry about distinguishing between the three of them, because they’re all pretty bad for the environment. All three act as greenhouse gases if released into the atmosphere, and with the exception of the last one, will deplete the ozone layer. If your AC winds up in a landfill with the refrigerants still inside, they will leak out and go into the sky and wreak havok.
We do a variety of things that are kind of bad for the environment all the time—including using electricity to run ACs in the first place—so what’s so bad about taking this particular life shortcut? A lot. Refrigerants are such powerful greenhouse gases that venting the refrigerant inside a single AC unit boosts the greenhouse effect as much as driving a car over 3,000 miles, according to EPA spokesperson Melissa Harrison. Basically, carelessly throwing out an AC unit has roughly the same environmental impact as taking a road trip from Seattle to Miami. (It’s less fun, too—or at least involves fewer Spotify playlists).
For these reasons, knowingly venting refrigerants can run you up to $37,500 a day in federal fines, Harrison said, which means that your garbage collector probably won’t even pick up your unit if you put it curbside.
Don’t worry, though. Doing the climate-friendly thing may not be much of a nuisance if you live in a city where window ACs are common:
New York City
A few cities have municipal services that will come pick up your air conditioner. If you are in New York City, you can make an appointment with the Department of Sanitation using this online form. You’ll leave the unit curbside, and someone will come remove the CFCs on the designated day. They’ll then tag the appliance and it will be removed on the next trash day. (It’s a good idea to leave a note on the unit to indicate that it’s broken so that no one else picks it up.)
In Los Angeles, you can schedule a pickup of the unit online or via phone via the information on this page of LA’s City Sanitation department’s website.
In Boston, you can use the city’s 311 hotline to schedule a pickup (don’t worry about clogging the line, it’s designed for nonemergencies like this).
Everywhere else in the US
This guide began with the goal of providing city-by-city advice for having someone haul away an AC. But in researching the specifics, we found that many cities’ sanitation departments simply overlook window air conditioner units. Chicago doesn’t have a curbside pickup program, according to Jennifer Martinez, City of Chicago director of public affairs. Martinez directed us to a site called Recycle By City, a general resource for disposing of household items properly, but the entry for Chicago doesn’t mention how to have window AC units picked up.
This means folks in Chicago, and many other cities, will have to find a local scrap yard that accepts ACs and has the EPA-approved equipment to handle the refrigerant disposal. The Earth911 recycling search is a good resource for finding this information (Martinez suggested Chicagoans check their ZIP codes on Earth911, and we confirmed there are several local options.) Just call ahead to your local center to confirm they can handle ACs before making the trip.
The downside, of course, is that you have to do the drop-off at a facility yourself. Philadelphia Public Relations Specialist June Cantor suggested to “have a friend, relative or a neighbor help to transport the a/c to the nearest sanitation yard [aka sanitation convenience center].” She also had an alternate idea: “Many times we suggest that a delivery person bringing the new a/c take the old one.” We checked with Home Depot to see if they could take them upon delivery of a new unit, and they said no.
One other avenue to consider: Try a private service like 1-800-Got-Junk? to arrange a pickup (and expect to pay a minimum charge of about $200). Not ideal when you’re already paying for local sanitation, we know, but if you have the means it could be easier than hauling it off yourself.
Of course, the best way to avoid the headache of tossing an AC is to maintain yours so that you get as many years of use out of it as possible, per our guide to window AC units: Clean the filter once a month, and at the end of the season, drain the water so that mold doesn’t build up while it’s in storage.
(Photos by Liam McCabe.)