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).
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.)