Residual CFCs are a ticking 'time bomb'

Posted: 28 September 2006

The Montreal Protocol - the first global climate protection treaty - was signed 19 years ago this week , on 16 September 1987. The agreement is regarded as a major breakthrough in the fight to protect the earth's ozone layer and the anniversary of the signing of the Montreal Protocol is celebrated each year on 'International Ozone Day'. But despite this success, industry experts say that an enormous threat is still posed to the ozone layer by the residual CFCs still present in many products. These ticking 'time bombs' need to be dealt with properly, they warn.

Since the protocol came into force, the production of chlorofluorocarbons and other ozone depleting substances has effectively ceased or, in a few exceptional cases, has been very significantly reduced. In nearly all areas in which CFCs were previously used, environmentally friendlier substitutes have now been found. In view of these developments, the Montreal Protocol can be deemed a success.

However, there are other less positive aspects that are often overlooked. For instance, what is the fate of all the CFCs still contained in end-of-life consumer and industrial products? Sadly, this issue has been barely mentioned.

Before the protocol and the legislation based upon it, CFCs and similar chemicals had for years been used in the manufacture of a huge range of disposable consumer products and in more durable products with long service lives. It is the products in this latter category that are still in use today or that can still be found in buildings or industrial plants.

For instance, in Germany alone, about 2.5 million refrigerator and freezer appliances that contain CFCs are sent for recycling every year. For Europe, the number of refrigerator or freezer appliances containing CFCs still in use is estimated to be around 200 million - equivalent to about 100,000 tonnes of CFCs.

Enormous hazard

The RAL Quality Assurance Association for the Demanufacture of Refrigeration Equipment is dedicated to ensuring that this enormous environmental hazard is not forgotten and that every gram of these climate killers is recovered and safely destroyed.

Enormous quantities of CFCs are also to be found in construction elements, such as roof and wall insulation materials, as well as in pipelines, automobiles and furniture.. So far, little has been done to promote the environmentally safe disposal of the CFC waste from these sources. As many of these products will be reaching the end of their normal lifetime over the next few years, the Association is arguing for effective, environmentally safe methods of disposal for these materials. If no action is taken, the CFC 'time bomb' has the potential to wreak major environmental damage. The release of unimaginably large quantities of CFCs into the atmosphere would seriously reduce if not eradicate the success of the Montreal Protocol achieved so far.

Ultimately, the success of the Montreal Protocol can only be judged once measures are in place to recover and safely destroy all the CFCs currently contained in older industrial products. Failure to implement these measures would cause serious damage to the climate protection efforts of the signatory states and would be a major defeat for global environmental protection.

The role played by CFCs in the greenhouse effect should also not be forgotten. In fact Chlorofluorocarbons contribute far more strongly to greenhouse gas emissions than is generally recognized. The CFC R12 found in the cooling circuits of waste fridges and freezers has a GWP (Global Warming Potential) of about 10,000. The CFC R11, which was formerly used as a blowing agent for polyurethane insulation foam, has a GWP of about 6000. (GWP is the factor by which the greenhouse effect attributable to a certain gas exceeds that due to CO2 )

To put this another way, every tonne of the CFC R12 that is recovered from refrigerator cooling circuits and destroyed is equivalent to a saving of around 10,000 tonnes of CO2.

Source: This article was submitted by the RAL Quality Assurance Association which promotes the safe recycling of refrigeration equipment and destruction of CFCs in these and other consumer products.

Note: The World Meteorological Organisation and the Nasa's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, USA, both predict that the ozone hole - now at its maximum size over Antarctica - could start to heal (and contract) in about 70 years, or by 2020-2025.