The world is switching to eco-friendlier fridges and A/Cs, leaving the U.S. behind

Perlick Column Refrigerator
Will Fulton/Digital Trends

“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.

us fridges are terrible for the environment but that could change kigali hfc getty 2
Members of the organising committee celebrate the adoption of the Kigali Amendment on October 15, 2016 in Kigali. The world community agreed today to phase out a category of dangerous greenhouse gases widely used in refrigerators and air conditioners. CYRIL NDEGEYA/AFP/Getty Images

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.

us fridges are terrible for the environment but that could change kigali hfc getty 1
Executive Director of UNEP Erik Solheim (L) speaks, flanked by Rwandan Minister of Natural Resources Vincent Biruta (C) and Rwandan President Paul Kagame (2nd R) during the official opening of the 28th meeting of the Parties to the Montreal Protocol in Kigali on October 13, 2016. CYRIL NDEGEYA/AFP/Getty Images

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.”

us fridges are terrible for the environment but that could change 57114752 2390162031014919 5582910512124919808 n
In 2014 Liebherr introduces HCFC and CFC-free appliances in the U.S. Liebherr Appliances/Facebook

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.

us fridges are terrible for the environment but that could change ben and jerrys newfreezer
Ben and Jerry’s

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.

Deals

Best Buy Memorial Day sale: Dyson vacuums, Keurig coffee makers, and more

Best Buy's Memorial Day sale is focusing the majority of its deals on appliances. Washers, dryers, refrigerators, vacuums, and coffee makers are all receiving some pretty substantial price cuts.
Smart Home

Walmart, Home Depot, ABT, Best Buy drop huge appliance sales for Memorial Day

Memorial Day weekend brings kitchen appliance sales just before the summer season begins. We searched Home Depot, Best Buy, ABT, and Walmart for their best appliance deals on washers, dryers, ranges, refrigerators, and kitchen suites.
Smart Home

Amazon chops the price for customer favorite Hamilton Beach 2-way coffee brewer

Do you sometimes want just a single cup of coffee without making a whole pot but other times use a full carafe? Have it both ways with the Amazon's Choice Hamilton Beach 2-Way Brewer. For today only, Amazon cut the price by $53.
Deals

Best Memorial Day smart mattress sales from Sleep Number, Beautyrest, and more

Memorial Day is one of the best holidays when it comes to online sales. If you're looking for a new mattress, a smart mattress may be right for you. Check out some of the best Memorial Day smart mattress sales of the year to take your smart…
Smart Home

Amazon Memorial Day sale: $210 off Arlo Pro wireless security camera kit

Weatherproof and wireless, the Arlo Pro security camera gives you the freedom to monitor any area or room inside or outside your home. Amazon dropped the price of the Arlo Pro HD security camera kit that includes everything you need.
Smart Home

Amazon Memorial Day deal drops price of August Smart Lock for homes to just $99

Smart lock are a strong start to any smart home security system. Now, in Amazon’s Memorial Day deal, score an August Smart Lock for the low price of just $99, down from $150. Lock in this deal now and start your summer off smart.
Smart Home

Walmart offers sweet deals on Owlet Smart Sock 2 baby monitor

Parenting is an amazing experience, but wondering how newborns and infants are at night can be nerve-wracking. Baby monitors can ease some of the stress by letting you check on the baby without entering the room.
Smart Home

Before you sell your Google Home Mini, here's how to factory reset it

If you’re thinking about swapping out Google's entry-level smart speaker, you can get a few bucks in cash or trade-in value out of your device. You’ll need to wipe your device first though. Here's how to factory reset a Google Home…
Deals

The best Amazon Prime Day 2019 deals: Everything you need to know

Amazon Prime Day 2019 is still a few months off, but it's never too early to start preparing. We've been taking a look at the best discounts from previous Prime Days to give you our predictions of what to expect this year.
Deals

Amazon slashes prices on Nest and Ecobee smart thermostats for Memorial Day

If you’re tired of constantly adjusting your thermostat and you want a smarter (not to mention more eco-friendly) way to keep cool this spring and summer, then these Nest and Ecobee smart thermostat deals are just what the doctor ordered.
Deals

Walmart Memorial Day sale: 4K TVs, laptops, and Apple iPads get price cuts

The Walmart Memorial Day sale has begun. With some pretty nice savings on Apple iPads, Samsung and Vizio 4K TVs, laptops, and Google Home devices, now is a great time to snag some electronics for cheap.
Smart Home

The best stand mixers of 2019, including models at every price range

Making dough is hard work, but the right stand mixer can make free up some time (and your hands). Here are our current favorites, from the likes of KitchenAid, Sunbeam, and several other manufacturers.
Smart Home

Amazon slices the price on Instant Pot DUO Plus 60 for this Memorial Day sale

Amazon dropped the price on the Instant Pot DUO Plus 60 6-quart, 9-in-1 multi-use cooker for this year's Memorial Day Sale. The right size for 4-to-6 people, the 6-quart DUO Plus 60 is a pressure cooker, slow cooker, rice cooker, and more.
Deals

Roomba and Shark Ion robot vacuum cleaners get big price cuts for Memorial Day

Your Memorial Day BBQ is all planned out, but what about the post-party cleanup? If you act quickly enough you might be able to get some robot help in time for the cleanup thanks to a few good sales on robot vacuums this weekend.