Refrigerants a Priority to Address Climate Change

by Terrie Brady

Drawdown by Paul Hawken rates refrigeration as the number one driver of climate change. These refrigerants are ubiquitous. They are in our air conditioners, in our homes and cars. They are in our refrigerators in our homes and in the refrigerators in grocery stores, restaurants and the transport chain for refrigerated goods. The problem with these appliances is the chemicals in them leak out during repairs and the worst leaks occur at the end of use.

The Montreal protocol was the treaty that was established to address the ozone depletion caused by Freon ( cfcs and hcfcs) . The replacement chemicals (hfcs) do not cause ozone depletion but all three of these chemicals have the GWP (Global warming potential) of up to 9000 times greater than CO2. Hfcs are regulated internationally under the Kigali accord, an amendment to the Montreal protocol. The state of California has banned the worst of the hfcs: those that cause more than 1500 times gwp of CO2. And the state of California has a program called CAR (certified appliance recyclers) that regulates refrigerator recycling. Much more needs to be done. All refrigerants should be contained, including the hfcs. The current crisis in the climate requires that we: 1 capture and deactivate all refrigerant chemicals that can disrupt the ozone layer or the climate. 2. Phase out all damaging refrigerants.

Currently the federal EPA lists as acceptable alternatives chemicals that do 9000 times more damage than CO2 to the climate.  There are alternatives that do not harm the climate or the ozone: ammonia, isobutane among others. Several of these have other safety hazards, and those factors should be addressed by design. They have been used safely since 2008 by Ben and Jerry’s.

The book Drawdown, edited by Paul Hawken, gives some helpful background. 1st the Kigali accord to the Montreal protocol requires that wealthy countries start to phase out climate harmful refrigerants by 2019. This will be an expensive venture, could cost up to $1 trillion worldwide. This problem is as serious as COVID and as we saw with COVID, funding can be made available in an emergency. The emergency is to recapture and decommission all climate and ozone damaging refrigerants. Many of the drawdown solutions pay back in the long run several trillion dollars. We should address climate change in all these ways. Refrigerants recapture is expensive but it benefits all of us. We need to make it a priority of our society.

There are many alternatives to these chemicals. Natural refrigerants are described both in the book Drawdown and on the green America website. They include isobutane (r600) commonly found in refrigerators in retail outlets now.

Green America and Greenpeace have put together a great source for alternatives to hfcs s in air conditioners and refrigeration. While California has started to phase out the worst of the hfcs, those with over 1500 times the CO2 potential, much greater strides toward reducing climate impact are possible. One is to use CO2 technology in all new cars. Some of the technologies could be dangerous in cars, but CO2 technology would not. There are two options provided at the above link. CO2 is being used in the Mercedes Benz s class and e class. Other models and other European cars are using the dangerous chemical hfo 1234yf. The link above does not consider this a green technology, and it is also expected to be dangerous in a crash. CO2 is the safe and ecological alternative for ac in autos and is expected to become more widely available as electric cars become more widespread.

For refrigeration, hydrocarbons such as isobutane have been used safely for commercial ice cream freezers by ben and jerry, since 2008. There are many models of home refrigeration that use the isobutane. Models available vary by country. There are many options for commercial refrigeration. Air conditioning is another area where use of hfcs is a threat to climate stability.

The risk of continued use of hfcs to climate is great. The greatest potential for reducing this risk is to create a public education campaign and government buy back program that would put the cost and responsibility of dismantling discarded refrigerators on the government or the corporation through a program advocated by Green America called extended corporate responsibility.

Dealers often simply state the refrigerators are put in a dumpster. Then they are taken to recycling centers. Refrigerators are also routinely left on sidewalks, where they are a hazard. As of 2020 it illegal to leave a refrigerator on the sidewalk with the doors intact. If this law is followed, this takes care of the immediate physical danger, but it still makes it a risk to all of us due to the possibility of leaking refrigerants. If the government would take the responsibility for discarded acs and refrigerators, then a qualified professional could reclaim and either recycle or destroy the chemicals rather than letting them leak into the atmosphere.

Another issue is the recycling of the refrigerators. While the state of California has a program called car that addresses Freon, cfc and hcfc, the cause of ozone depletion, their program does not appear to address the other problem refrigerant, hfc. It also does not require that the recyclers have familiarity with the new refrigerants coming on line which could be hazardous, if handled improperly. These are hydrocarbons, gases that are harmful to breathe, and flammable. If they are used properly and handled correctly they can be removed safely. However the majority of recyclers and repair people may not be familiar with them. This is an ongoing question.

With the state program there is a list of recyclers that are in compliance with the CAR program.

On the federal level, there is a certification program for refrigerator recyclers called RAD, responsible appliance disposal. Companies and cities are listed on the website if they have signed up. Locally, the city of Burbank, DWP, Sears corporation are the ones that have signed up. you can check for more participants here

However these programs do not go far enough: for example the DWP says it must be a working refrigerator. If the goal is to recycle all refrigerators properly, there should be a process available to have a non-working refrigerator as well. All refrigerators working or not should be taken to the proper place for dismantling.

These complex processes and chemicals, the potential for leakage and the urgency of addressing climate change indicates these programs are starting to address refrigerant impact on climate. But they are far from solving the whole problem. A process of handling refrigerators and ACs before the recycler where the refrigerant will be removed and contained safely before recycling should be adopted. Drawdown advocates for a chemist to evaluate which chemical is in the equipment, remove it properly, recycle it if possible and break it down to its chemical components when it can’t be recycled.

It would be costly but it could prevent an even greater climate catastrophe than we are experiencing now. This could be accomplished one of two ways: government taking responsibility or corporations taking responsibility.

The second solution is advocated by green America, and it is called extended corporate accountability. It could also be addressed by funding almost a trillion dollars ( the full cost of this venture worldwide according to drawdown) to the government agencies overseeing this so they can hire chemists and fund their work . If the goal is to solve the climate crisis and protect the ozone layer, refrigerants of high global warming potential should be phased out as soon as possible, and the cost should not be on the consumer, the recycler, the repair person. There should be public service announcements telling people how to dispose of refrigerators safely. Can there be an 800 number? If you see an abandoned refrigerator there should be.

If you have questions or comments you can contact Terrie Brady, Conservation chair for the San Fernando Valley group of the Sierra Club Angeles chapter: or

When shopping for a refrigerator you can find the tag inside the refrigerator door that says which refrigerant it uses.  R 600 is isobutane, which has a gwp of 3.  R134 is hfc which has a gwp of between 1400 and 9000. (though in California the worst of these is banned, and therefore it should be a maximum of 1500. )  There is also propane (r290)  which has gwp of 3, ammonia which has gwp of 0  and co2 which is 1.  While we know co2 as the main culprit in climate change, as a refrigerant it is actually  a solution.  Many other cars,  including cars in the US, still use r134. 

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