Greenpeace and Ben & Jerry's bring climate-friendly refrigeration to the US

Hydrocarbon is the new cool

Feature story - September 29, 2008
Refrigeration and cooling have an often-overlooked but nonetheless major impact on global warming. That’s why Greenpeace has teamed up with Ben & Jerry’s to bring climate-friendly freezers to the United States. The ice-cream maker’s “Cleaner Greener Freezer” uses Hydrocarbons as the refrigerant instead of Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) or other environmentally harmful fluorinated gases (more commonly known as F-gases).

Nearly one-fifth of the cumulative global warming pollution in our atmosphere is F-gases - chemicals commonly used in refrigeration and cooling units. As Greenpeace Solutions Director Amy Larkin notes: "F-gases are the worst greenhouse gases you've never heard of." Some common F-gases have a Global Warming Potential that is more than 1400 times that of C02 over 100 years (and even greater when measured over 20 years). Greenpeace helped transform the Asian and European markets to largely eliminate the use of F-gases in domestic refrigerators and is currently working with various businesses around the globe to transform all refrigeration, cooling, and air conditioning units in homes, cars, supermarkets, and vending machines.

Greenpeace applauds Ben & Jerry's decision to bring natural refrigeration technology to the States.

"This climate-safe freezer will keep pints of Chunky Monkey and Cherry Garcia as cold as ever, but it's also going to help cool our planet," said John Passacantando, Executive Director of Greenpeace USA. "With hurricanes intensifying, tropical disease spreading, sea levels rising, and polar bears going extinct, we need to make sure that what cools our ice cream, drinks, and homes isn't also melting the ice caps."

Greenpeace and F-gases: The history

Greenpeace first started campaigning against F-gases in 1986, when we started working to protect the ozone layer. We took part in the negotiations to establish the Montreal Protocol in 1987, a global treaty that regulates the use of chlorfluorocarbons (CFCs), which were depleting the ozone layer. In 1992, when HFCs were being promoted as the "environmental alternative" to CFCs, Greenpeace and many independent scientists warned of the high global warming impact of these new chemicals.

So we decided to prove that natural refrigeration and cooling solutions not only existed, but were also potentially viable as commodities. In 1992, we developed the GreenFreeze technology using a natural refrigerant, the hydrocarbon isobutene. It was one of Greenpeace's first direct market interventions.

Not only did we develop the GreenFreeze refrigerator, we prototyped it and solicited some 70,000 orders for them in three weeks, thereby convincing a German firm to manufacture and sell them. The more than 300 million GreenFreeze refrigerators in the world today make up approximately 40% of the 80 million refrigerators produced annually. Hydrocarbon technology dominates the domestic refrigeration markets of Europe and is prominent in the markets of Japan and China, but it is conspicuously absent in North American markets due to obsolete regulatory obstacles.

To bring further attention to the issue of HFCs' impact on global warming, Greenpeace challenged the major corporate sponsors of the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia, to refrain from using HFC-based cooling. This push for natural refrigerant solutions was so successful that in 2004 three of those sponsors -- Coca-Cola, McDonald's, and Unilever -- launched the Refrigerants, Naturally! global initiative in cooperation with Greenpeace and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). The goal of Refrigerants, Naturally! is to phase out the use of HFCs in the participating companies' extensive fleets of point-of-sale cooling equipment such as vending machines, display cabinets, and ice cream freezers.

Other companies must follow Ben & Jerry's lead

With the announcement on Sept. 29th, Ben & Jerry's, a division of Unilever that has 300,000 hydrocarbon coolers deployed internationally, brought climate-friendly coolers to the US for the first time ever. Unilever has received a trial "market test" allowanace from the EPA, which has to approve any new chemicals used for refrigeration, and has received a safety approval from Underwriters Laboratories. In addition to the Cleaner Greener Freezers using a safer refrigerant chemical, they are also more energy efficient than their counterparts that use HFCs.  

As global warming grows more dire a crisis by the day, it becomes more and more urgent that we drastically reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. Given F-gases' significant contribution to global warming and the fact that natural refrigerants are ready to go, there is no excuse for the United States to continue ignoring this viable solution to the most severe environmental crisis of our time.

Ben & Jerry's engineer Pete Gosselin is optimistic about the future of natural refrigerants in the US, saying of his company's decision to roll out the Cleaner Greener Freezer,  "It's one small step for our business, and a giant leap for opening the door to prove that a more environmentally benign refrigeration technology could work in the U.S. market."

Says Greenpeace Solutions Director, Amy Larkin: "Now it's up to other companies to follow Ben & Jerry's lead and make climate-safe refrigeration as standard in the United States as it is elsewhere. This should be the low-hanging fruit of our efforts to stave off catastrophic climate change."