Recycling old electrical devices minimizes Laboratory’s eco-footprint

Cleanup and recycling project keeps 100-plus legacy devices out of the landfill

April 15, 2024

Electrical Cleanup
A subcontractor secures several of the Lab’s legacy transformers and capacitors onto a truck for shipment to a licensed electrical equipment recycling facility.

In a project that rounded up more than 100 of Los Alamos National Laboratory’s legacy electrical devices no longer in use — all of which contained oil and some that contained the now-banned chemical compound known as polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs — one non-negotiable prevailed. The devices must be recycled, rather than buried in a landfill, which is what Lab project owners told interested bidders.

“Our direction to the recycling companies considered for this project was that oil and electrical equipment must be recycled to the greatest extent possible, and they must provide a certificate of recycling back to the Lab,” said Tony Garcia of the Laboratory’s Waste Management division, who led the disposition effort with Andrea Pistone of the Lab’s Project Programs Office. 

The round-up effort

In 2021, a Lab-wide call went out to gather inventories on any unusable electrical devices larger than 12 inches. Then, in a coordinated sitewide effort across multiple divisions, old devices were rounded up. The equipment consisted of transformers, capacitors and reclosers previously used in the Lab’s transmission and distribution electrical utility system.

Employing craft workers to drain the oil from such large electrical devices, some of which measure up to 10 feet tall and weigh around 10,000 pounds, would have proved time consuming, costly and risky, Pistone said. So finding a qualified and licensed electrical equipment recycling company to responsibly handle them was huge.

The private facility the Lab contracted with will recycle all the oil and metal, and in a few cases, incinerate small amounts of the electrical devices’ residual PCB-contaminated oil in accordance with environmental regulations under the Toxic Substances Control Act. Such treatment ensures the contaminant doesn’t persist in the environment.

Reducing environmental liability

On Dec. 19, the first shipment of the old electrical equipment left the Lab, weighing in at about 39,000 pounds. As an added boon, the space once used to store the equipment can now be better used for current work.

“We drastically improved our environmental liability by getting these devices off-site,” said Waste Management division leader Ronnie Garcia. “In finding a contract and method for timely disposition of this legacy electrical equipment, we reduced the potential for PCB contamination and other environmental liabilities.”

A second shipment with additional transformers and capacitors, also estimated to be about 39,000 pounds, is slated for early March. Pistone foresees at least one more subsequent shipment, possibly more.

“We now have a path forward to recycle used electrical equipment, so we’re encouraging people to plan for the disposition of such devices during the research and development phase of their projects,” Ronnie Garcia said. “Then we can do things right the first time with difficult waste streams and items. We want to protect the environment, as well as the health and safety of our people.”

“We’re making great strides,” Pistone added. “Now that the proof of concept is done, we’re in the process of developing what truck two will look like.”