IPCC just unveiled its latest evaluation of climate change and warned that if we continue down our current path, we’re in for trouble, big time. One of the culprits in this battle is refrigerants. Right now just over 2% are captured and recycled at the end of an appliance’s life. According to Drawdown, by capturing most of them we can help avoid 89 gigatons of gases, saving the planet almost 1 degree Fahrenheit of warming.

Refrigerants and Global Warming Potential

Refrigerants have significantly more Global Warming Potential than carbon dioxide (CO2 – which is the baseline with a GWP of “1”). The refrigerant chemicals most commonly used are hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). They have a GWP of between 1000 and 9000. The average GWP for refrigerants is somewhere just above 2300 GWP. What that means is that the refrigerants used in your refrigerator, chest freezer and air conditioner are 2300 times more potent than carbon dioxide at warming the atmosphere when they are released into the air.

Refrigerator Disposal – the reality

When you talk to a local scrap collector and ask them how they handle refrigerants, they will smile at you and nod. They know why you’re asking. The last guy said to me, “Scrapyards won’t accept refrigerators with refrigerants still left in them, so we drain them before we take them in.” When he sees the look of horror on your face he shrugs and says, “Everybody does it.” You can tell them that it’s wrong until you are blue in the face, it still won’t change their practices. There isn’t enough government oversight and the penalties aren’t severe enough to make them stop. (Bounties on refrigerants could change that in a heartbeat.)

The problem is, with shorter refrigerator lifespans, the more refrigerators are replaced, the more refrigerants are created and likely, let off into the atmosphere at end of life.

If you have to replace your refrigerator, try to find out what your appliance replacement company is going to do with your old fridge.

In municipalities where there is municipal collection of “white goods” (appliances) in place, there is a better chance that refrigerants are dealt with responsibly. Elsewhere, well, it’s finding getting the right scrap dealer. You can call around and see if there is a scrap dealer who is a certified refrigerant manager, but they are hard to find. The equipment to capture refrigerants is expensive and so not a lot of scrap dealers have it, even if they’re supposed to.

Some junk collectors, such at 1-800 Got Junk mention that they responsibly dispose of refrigerators.

The Future of Refrigerants

The type of refrigerants being used is changing. In 2016, the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol was signed. Effective as of 2019, developed countries will have to phase out their use of HFCs as refrigerants and replace them with the lower GWP refrigerants with developed countries starting in 2024. This is already happening, so you may hear about your new refrigerator using new refrigerants that are more climate-friendly, such as isobutane or propane. While this is a good thing for the future, we still have a massive issue with refrigerants already in use in refrigerators, freezers, air conditioners or car air conditioners.

The next time you need to replace your refrigerator, ask how refrigerants are handled in your neighbourhood. Responsible global management can help avoid up to  1 degree Fahrenheit of warming and avoid 89 gigatons of CO2 equivalent greenhouse gas emissions.

 

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