“Ozone Hole Gapes Wider” warned the headline of a Time Magazine story in 1991. Depletion was spreading from the polar region, threatening to leave Earth’s inhabitants less protected from harmful UV rays. The world took the danger seriously, and 24 nations signed the Montreal Protocol in 1987. The agreement limited the use of chlorofluorocarbon (CFCs), manufactured chemicals used in aerosols and as refrigerants that were discovered to be ozone-depleting in the 1970s. Now, the hole is shrinking, but the chemicals that replaced CFCs aren’t perfect, either.
Hydrofluorocarbons are gases used in refrigerators, air conditioners, insulation, and other applications. They aren’t as bad for the ozone, but they do contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. To correct this unintended consequence of phasing out of CFCs, delegates from the nations that signed the Montreal Protocol agreed to the Kigali Amendment in 2016. It would require the nations to phase down the use and production of HFCs, which could prevent a global temperature increase of 0.5 degrees Celsius over time. It went into effect in January 2019, and 69 countries have ratified the amendment. The United States is not among them.
When it comes to HFC alternatives, the U.S. is already behind the times. Over 90 percent of new residential refrigerators in the European Union use hydrocarbon refrigerants instead of HFC. These alternatives have far lower global warming potential (GWP) than HFCs like HFC-134a. GWP measures the amount of energy emitting one ton of that gas will absorb over 100 years. The lower the number, the more environmentally friendly it is. Hydrocarbons have GWPs of between 3 and 5. HFC-134a’s is 1,430.
In February 2018, three Republican and three Democratic senators introduced the American Innovation and Manufacturing Act, which would give the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the ability to phase out HFCs. There hasn’t been much movement on the legislation, and the same is true of the Kigali Amendment. Law-makers, manufacturers, and environmental advocates are all waiting on the Trump administration to submit it to the Senate for consideration. Thirteen Republican senators sent a letter to the president in June 2018 asking him to do just that. “The reason that the Kigali Amendment is achievable is that this is an area where the industry and the environmental advocates share a goal,” Alex Hillbrand, the Natural Resources Defense Council’s HFC expert, told Digital Trends. “That is born from years of successful work under the Montreal Protocol, from the successful transition of chemicals having been done smoothly.”
“This is an area where the industry and environmental advocates share a goal.”
Without the Kigali Amendment and because the EPA has decided not to enforce Obama-era rules about the use of HFCs, manufacturers are in limbo. Critics of switching from HFCs to hydrocarbons claim it will be cost-prohibitive, but manufacturers like Honeywell and trade groups such as the Air-Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Institute support the Kigali Amendment. Doing so will ensure the U.S. stays competitive, create jobs, and increase exports, according to a letter they sent to President Trump last year. As other countries phase out HFCs, it will limit where the U.S. can export its greenhouse-gas-emitting products in the future.
Meanwhile, some states aren’t waiting for the federal government. California adopted legislation regulating HFCs, and New York, Connecticut, and Maryland have discussed similar moves. Washington state’s HFC-phase-out bill recently passed and is awaiting the governor’s signature. Some are hoping for a domino effect.
“We certainly think that more states will join the coalition of those with HFC emissions reduction policy.”
“We certainly think that more states will join the coalition of those with HFC emissions reduction policy,” Hillbrand said. “And just how long states are in the position of carrying the mantle of action on this, we’re not sure.”
If more states opt to phase out these chemicals, it could make matters complicated for manufacturers, who could continue to make refrigerators and air conditioners the old way for most states but would need to make different models for HFC-free states.
“Historically, this has all been federal, like since the beginning of time,” said Keilly Witman, a refrigerant management consultant who previously worked for the EPA. “There really is no history, and there really is no expertise at the state level. You have them focusing on things that are kind of the easiest things to manage, but they’re really not necessarily the things that are going to have much of an environmental impact.”
Another reason this type of regulation lends itself to the federal level is the manufacturing arm, Witman said. “The idea of having to manufacture a different product across 25 different states is just terrifying for them.”
Many appliance companies are already global manufacturers and will have to make changes for those countries who have signed the Kigali Amendment, if they haven’t already. Bosch started making isobutane fridges for the U.S. market in 2014. Samsung also has a couple of models that use hydrocarbons to cool. HFCs are also often used to make the insulating foam for fridges, but Liebherr has used hydrocarbons for all its insulation since 1993. Ninety-seven percent of its refrigerators sold in the U.S. use hydrocarbons for refrigerants, and the company said it will reach 100 percent soon.
It’s not a coincidence that Bosch and Liebherr, both German companies, are ahead of the game. In the 1990s, the greenhouse gas emission problem of HFCs was already known, but most countries made the switch from CFCs to HFCs anyway.
In 1992, DKK Scharfenstein was in trouble. Formerly East Germany’s only refrigerator manufacturer, the company saw its profits and production steadily decline after the Berlin Wall fell. Around this time, West German manufacturers — Miele, Bosch, Liebherr — were planning on using HFCs to replace CFCs, like the rest of the world. But DKK was already halfway to an HFC-, CFC-free refrigerator, as its insulation had never been made with CFCs, thanks to production limitations in East Germany.
Greenpeace was concerned about the stop-gap choice to move from ozone-depleting CFCs to greenhouse-gas-emitting HFCs. It approached DKK to try and figure out a way to use hydrocarbons instead. Critics were skeptical, citing concerns that gases like butane and propane were flammable. Nevertheless, Greenpeace launched a publicity campaign, and 70,000 Germans preordered the yet-to-be-manufactured fridge. By 1993, Bosch, Liebherr, and Miele all announced hydrocarbon fridges, too. It took about 15 years, but the U.S. EPA finally let Ben and Jerry’s start using Greenpeace’s “Greenfreeze” technology in its freezers.
While some hydrocarbon fridges do exist on the U.S. market, they tend to be expensive — though not because of the refrigerant itself. Unlike HFCs, hydrocarbons like isobutane and propane aren’t patentable and therefore are widely available. Yet those companies that do offer these types of fridges in the U.S. don’t tend to advertise the hydrocarbon technology as a selling point, though it is more environmentally friendly and efficient.
“The story of this has been forcing people to move from one really bad refrigerant to one slightly less bad refrigerant.”
Witman suggests that people in the market for a new fridge should ask retailers about hydrocarbon options. She adds that the most important step they can take for the environment is ensuring whoever recycles the old refrigerator properly dispose of the HFCs instead of simply venting them off into the atmosphere.
There are signs that the U.S. will eventually move forward with hydrocarbons. The EPA increased the amount of hydrocarbon refrigerants allowed in home fridges, after an assessment of flammability risks. As the U.S. adopts hydrocarbon technology, it should make safety concerns over these flammable gases a priority. U.K. consumer advice group Which? found that fridges and freezers were responsible for 8 percent of appliance-caused fires. The organization has urged manufacturers to remove plastic-backed fridges from the market that can accelerate the spread of fire. Jeff Shapiro, president of International Code Consultants, has highlighted the importance of leak-detection systems in hydrocarbon refrigerators, especially as these gases aren’t odorized. UL, which certifies appliances and other electronics, said it’s changing its standards to adapt to these new refrigerants.
“The story of this has been forcing people to move from one really bad refrigerant to one slightly less bad refrigerant and no one really knew what the end game was,” said Witman. “And now, for the first time, we do know what the end game is. We have options with very environmentally friendly refrigerants.”
Updated May 1, 2019: Updated to include information about Washington passing its legislation, as well as information about the EPA increasing the amount of hydrocarbon refrigerants and information on hydrocarbon flammability.