What do you do when a bad guy does a good deed?

Feature story - February 7, 2003
McDonalds is one of the last corporations we want to say anything good about. We don't like a lot of what it does and what it stands for but we have to take a deep breath here, and give them some credit where it is due.

Activist holds the teather of the Balloon near the Utah Olympic Sports Park.

They've done something to help the planet! Recently McDonalds took the first concrete step towards meeting their promise by opening the first restaurant with environmentally friendly refrigeration. Why this is such a significant step involves gases that keep you alive, chemicals with long names, huge corporations and the global chemical industry in retreat.

Ozone Layer

Twenty years ago the average person had no idea what the ozone layer was, never mind know it was vital for sustaining life on Earth. The dramatic discovery in 1986 of a hole in the ozone layer changed all that and public opinion forced the chemical industry to replace ozone destroying chemicals. Unfortunately few people realise that the industry replaced the ozone destroyers with new chemicals and new problems.

Located in the upper atmosphere the ozone layer filters the sun's deadly ultraviolet rays and allows all life to survive. The discovery in the early 1970's that industrial chemicals like Chlorofluorocarbons (CFC's) damage the ozone layer along with the dramatic discovery in 1986 of the Antarctic ozone hole forced governments to enact measures to reduce and eliminate ozone depleting substances. The chemical industry was compelled to reduce the damage their products were inflicting upon the ozone layer.

Climate Change

However, rather than use environmentally friendly replacements it chose chemicals like Hydroflourocarbons (HFC's) that are powerful greenhouse gases. These gases are several thousand times more powerful than carbon dioxide in causing climate change. The major industrial sector that uses HFC's is refrigeration and air-conditioning.

At first the industry claimed there were no alternatives to these new refrigeration chemicals. But we knew that natural chemicals such as ammonia and hydrocarbons were viable environmentally friendly alternatives. Greenpeace responded by developing a new environmentally safe domestic refrigerator using hydrocarbons, which we called Greenfreeze. The chemical industry said it would never work and the big refrigeration users lined up with their friends in the industry to dismiss our claims.

Solutions

Today there are over 100 million Greenfreeze refrigerators in the world, produced by all the major European, Chinese, Japanese and Indian manufacturers. Greenfreeze is now available in most major markets with the exception of North America.

While Greenfreeze technology gradually gained a foothold in the domestic market in the late 1990's, large commercial users continued to use refrigeration that causes global warming. In the run up to the Sydney Olympics in 2000 we targeted big refrigeration users such as Unilever, Coke and McDonalds, all Olympic sponsors, to live up to the guidelines of the green games which excluded HFC's.

Coke caved in after being faced with a concerted internet campaign before the 2000 Olympics to buy green refrigeration for new units. Before the start of the games all three companies announced phase out plans for damaging refrigeration technologies by the time of the 2004 Olympics. While good words come easy, actually doing the right thing is what matters.

Recently McDonald's in Denmark, took the first concrete step towards meeting their promise by opening the first HFC/HCFC free restaurant. Hopefully it will be the first of many such restaurants for the company and that it will spark more sustainable innovation from the refrigeration industry and others in the food service sector.

Even though big corporations like McDonald's, Coca Cola, Unilever and Nestle are taking steps to move away from environmentally harmful products in refrigeration, the chemical industry is still vigorously marketing its polluting products in other applications like car and commercial air-conditioning. As several European countries like Denmark, Austria and Germany have either enacted or are considering legislation to ban and limit the use of HFCs, the industry is keen to dominate the vulnerable markets of developing countries.

It is clear that the industry is fighting a losing battle and will eventually have to admit that natural chemicals are a better alternative. Industry not listening to environmentalists is nothing new, but when some of your biggest corporate customers are switching to green alternatives, then it really is time to listen.

Further Reading:

Making a Difference - Greenpeace campaign to save the ozone layer (pdf file).