Want to fight global warming? Start with refrigerants

Part one

The publication of the book Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, by Paul Hawken (Penguin Books, 2017) injected a new bolt of energy into the environmental movement and the lives of citizens concerned about climate change. The doom-and-gloom predictions of planetary catastrophe made us aware of the urgent problem, but ordinary mortals tend to retreat into discouragement when faced with a hopeless situation.

The optimistic, carefully documented approach of Drawdown brings hope and methodology that are motivating many local residents to take action. This article is the first in a series that will highlight what’s happening in the Hudson Valley to address climate change and how you might choose to participate.

The Number One solution on the Drawdown list — the action that has the potential to make the biggest immediate impact on climate change — is proper disposal and management of refrigerants. Here’s why. 

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Refrigerants are chemicals used in many modern appliances, including refrigerators, freezers, industrial chillers, hot water heaters, fossil-fuel-saving heat pumps, air conditioners (in buildings and cars), and even the little dehumidifier in your basement. The refrigerants used in air conditioners, for example, have from 1400 to over 2000 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide.

In 2015, an estimated five percent of New York State’s greenhouse gas emissions came from refrigerants emitted into the atmosphere. When contained within well-sealed appliances, these chemicals make no contribution to climate change, while about 90 percent of refrigerant leakage takes place at the point of disposal or recycling of appliances. Efforts to address refrigerant management, therefore, are mostly focused on the disposal process, but regulation of usage is also key.

The 1987 Montreal Protocol recognized chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, as the most damaging refrigerants, with a global warming potential (GWP) of over 14,000 times that of carbon dioxide. The international agreement to phase them out has been effective at vastly reducing CFC usage. The 2016 Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol will start this year to phase out HFCs, a set of refrigerants with high- to medium-level GWP, in the wealthiest countries. If this amendment is fully implemented by 2028, it could reduce global warming by 1°F by 2100. The questions are, will the U.S. follow the Kigali Protocol and will New York State adopt its own related regulations?

Gaps in knowledge and practice

“When I first found out about refrigerants,” said Ulster County legislator and environmental activist Manna Jo Greene, “I thought, it’s a problem, but we have rules and regulations in place. But as we looked into it, we found serious gaps in the knowledge of the general public and in the practices of the installers and scrap dealers. Most do a really good job, but others do not.” 

Sustainable Hudson Valley and other area environmental groups are raising public awareness of the issue. They are also talking to appliance vendors about their refrigerant management practices, as well as educating government officials on ways to facilitate proper recycling and urging enforcement of existing laws. A forum on refrigerants held at the Ulster County office building in February was attended by County staff, four Ulster County legislators, and planners and officials representing municipalities from Kingston to Nyack.

Individuals can play an important role in refrigerant management as well. When buying new appliances, the informed householder can take steps to make sure the old ones are handled properly. 

“If you have an old air conditioner,” Greene said, “and you get a new one, don’t just toss the old one in a dumpster. You could inadvertently rupture a tube and release the refrigerant.” At recycling centers, such as the Ulster County Resource Recovery Agency, a technician pumps the refrigerant from the appliance into a tank and takes it to a processing facility. Usually it is cleaned and put in tanks to be used as refrigerant again. See the highlighted box for recycling options in Ulster County. 

Melissa Everett of Sustainable Hudson Valley urges, “If you have a local recycler, other than the County or Central Hudson, call them and ask how they handle refrigerants. And let us know what they say. We can provide education.”

Michael Helme, one of the presenters at the refrigerant forum, represents Sustainable Warwick in Orange County. He suggests, “Whenever someone is working on a homeowner’s central air conditioning system or heat pump system, there should be a conversation about how the homeowner doesn’t want shortcuts taken with refrigerants. The HVAC tech should be able to explain their record of capturing them and taking them to a recycler. They should also treat any signs of refrigerant leakage as a huge red flag that means something needs to be done to find the leak.”

Perhaps most important is simply to be informed, so we can be responsible at home, in the workplace, and at community facilities. “When we held the forum,” said Greene, “we had people from both the Kingston and Ulster County Departments of Public Works. They manage all those air conditioners in vehicles, buildings with central air, refrigerators and freezers. Everyone felt just knowing about the issue was very valuable. With a higher level of awareness, people will teach each other.”

For more information on local management of refrigerants and other Drawdown issues, see the Sustainable Hudson Valley website at http://sustainhv.org.

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