By Donella Meadows
–May 24, 1990–
It is the policy of our nation that by the year 2000 we will cease the use of the chemicals called CFCs. The reason for that policy is that CFCs escape into the stratosphere and destroy the ozone layer. Without that ozone as a shield, damaging ultraviolet light will reach the earth. There it will kill oceanic life, sicken green plants, and cause human skin cancer and blindness.
The policy is essential, given the environmental threat, but it leaves us with two problems. First, how to convince all other nations to join us in a complete CFC phase-out. (The European nations have agreed; others have agreed so far to a 50 percent phase-out at most.) Second, how to get along without CFCs. That won’t be easy. CFCs pervade our lives.
The first CFCs were the Freons, which began coming off the production lines in the 1930s. They were seen then as miracle molecules; they were nontoxic, nonflammable, noncorrosive, nearly indestructible, and they had just the right boiling points to serve as coolants for our newly invented necessity, the refrigerator.
By the 1980s the world was manufacturing a million tons of CFCs per year. In the U.S. alone CFCs are at work in 100 million refrigerators, 30 million freezers, 45 million home air conditioners, 90 million car air conditioners, and several hundred thousand coolers in restaurants, supermarkets, and refrigerated trucks and railroad cars.
CFCs also turned out to be ideal solvents for cleaning and degreasing electronic circuit boards. They are great gases for blowing stuff out of aerosol cans and blowing bubbles in plastic foam. They conduct heat so poorly that when blown into polyurethane they make excellent insulation. CFC cousins called halons extinguish fires without toxicity and without leaving any residue — and are even harder on the ozone layer than CFCs.
CFC production is now worth $750 million per year in the U.S. alone. Directly and indirectly 715,000 people are employed in their manufacture or use (mostly people who service air conditioners and refrigerating units). The value of installed CFC-using equipment in the U.S. is $135 billion.
How are we going to get along without these chemicals? By a combination of four strategies:
- Stop the trivial uses. Life will probably still be liveable if we package fast-food hamburgers in cardboard instead of plastic foam, if we renounce plastic packaging peanuts, if we smear on shoe polish instead of spraying it. Most of us can exist without a car air conditioner. Those who can’t might be willing to give up the requirement that a car heated to 200 degrees in the summer sun be cooled down within minutes. Because of that rapid-cooling requirement, and because of poor insulation, a car air conditioner is powerful enough to cool a house. It contains 10 times as much CFC as a home refrigerator, and unlike the refrigerator it leaks. Redesign, better mounting, tighter hoses, and smaller units would greatly reduce CFC use in cars — but it would be better for the ozone layer just to roll down the windows.
- Capture and recycle. The halons released from testing fire extinguishers could be reused. (Only seven percent of halon release come from actual fire-fighting.) Similarly, we don’t have to vent the CFCs when coolers and air conditioners are serviced. The gases can be caught, purified, and used again. They will have to be, if we are going to keep all those coolers running without making any more CFCs. Some electronics companies are already recycling their CFC solvents and saving money by doing so.
- Non-CFC substitutes. The U.S. banned CFCs as aerosol propellants in 1978 and no one noticed, because other gases (carbon dioxide, pentane, nitrous oxide) took their place. That’s a substitution that still has to happen in the rest of the world. Circuit boards can be cleaned with acidic or alkaline water solutions. Refrigerators can use other gases, such as helium, as coolants. Many materials besides polyurethane foam can insulate houses. Non-halon-containing fire extinguishers already exist.
- CFC substitutes. Some CFCs are worse ozone eaters than others. The chemical called HCFC-22, widely used in home air conditioners, causes only 5 percent as much ozone destruction molecule for molecule as CFC-12, which is used in car air conditioners. There’s a tremendous drive now to substitute HCFC-22 for nearly all uses of CFCs — and to develop new HCFCs.
When McDonald’s tells you that their foam hamburger cartons no longer hurt the ozone layer, what they mean is that they now contain HCFC-22, which doesn’t hurt the ozone layer as much. It would be better not to hurt it at all. We can substitute more benign HCFCs for CFCs for awhile — but by the time we do that for every CFC use, and if every person on earth hopes to have even a refrigerator, much less an air conditioner, much less a car air conditioner, we will be back in as much trouble with the ozone layer as we’re in today. Substitute CFCs are at best a temporary measure.
Some of these changes will save money — especially stopping the trivial uses. Some will cost more — especially the CFC substitutes. Most will create headaches for industry. Equipment will have to be redesigned, workers retrained, whole chemical plants refitted. CFC substitutes will have to be tested for toxicity, flammability and environmental impact. To the credit of the chemical industry, most companies are not bellyaching, they’re adapting. They know that it’s going to be much easier to get along without CFCs than without the ozone layer.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1990