Coca-Cola is going HFC-free. The soft drink giant announced today that it is phasing out hydrofluorocarbons — potent "super greenhouse gases" — by requiring that all new vending machines and coolers be HFC-free by 2015.
CEO Muhtar Kent told reporters he hopes the move will catalyze a shift away from HFCs in the wider commercial refrigeration market.
If it succeeds, it could be a valuable step in the fight against global warming.
The HFC problem started in the 1980s after chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), gases commonly used in refrigerators and air-conditioning, were found to be eating away at the ozone layer. CFCs were banned in 1986, and the refrigeration industry switched to HFCs, not realizing the impact its new coolant would have.
It turns out that the typical HFC has a global warming potential more than 1,400 times greater than carbon dioxide. They're used in only tiny amounts, but that use is growing as refrigeration spreads through the developing world. If left unchecked, the build-up of HFCs in the atmosphere could negate current efforts to reduce carbon dioxide to safe levels by 2050, the National Academy of Sciences warns.
To combat the risk posed by HFCs, Greenpeace launched the Greenfreeze program in 1992, teaming up with two scientists who had an idea for eliminating HFCs. They got supporters to pre-order enough HFC-free units to get an old refrigeration factory to produce them. The experiment worked, and by 2004 there were over 100 million Greenfreeze refrigerators around the world. Today, Greenpeace is involved in international efforts to phase out HFCs globally.
"Large enterprises have both an opportunity and responsibility to change the game, and Coca-Cola's action leaves no excuse for other companies not to follow," Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace International, said today in praising the company's HFC announcement.
In fact, Coca-Cola's main competitor, PepsiCo, launched a pilot program earlier this year to test the use of HFC-free vending machines. But Coca-Cola's efforts are far past the pilot stage.
Coca-Cola's announcement stems from its ongoing relationship with Greenpeace, which challenged the company to go HFC-free with all the equipment it supplied to the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. Although Coca-Cola missed the Sydney deadline, by the time the Winter Games in Torino rolled around in 2006, it was able to supply HFC-free vending machines to all Olympic venues. Also in 2006, the company transitioned to HFC-free insulating foam for all new refrigeration equipment. HFCs remained in use, however, as a refrigerant.
Over the past five years, Greenpeace has continued to work with Coca-Cola to find HFC-free coolants that are cost effective. The company currently uses, and will be phasing in, two forms of HFC-free refrigerants: hydrocarbon in smaller units, and compressed carbon dioxide in larger equipment.
Why spend all this money and still have a greenhouse gas to deal with in the end? For now, the answer is simply that, of the available coolants, compressed CO2 is the best replacement and, compared to HFC, the lesser of two evils.
Coca-Cola's currently installed 10 million coolers around the world are responsible for the lion's share of its greenhouse gas emissions — 40 percent of the 15 million metric tons the company emits each year.
It sounds like circuitous logic, but one of the big reasons for Coke's announcement today is to encourage suppliers to make more HFC-free refrigeration units, and to persuade bottlers to buy them. The company has said in the past that one of the primary obstacles on its path to going HFC-free has been that independent bottlers don't want to pay extra for HFC-free units and manufacturers don't want to spend the necessary money to retool production lines in order to produce them in bulk.
"Our hope is that our initial investments will trigger adoption by other companies in the food and beverage industry," Coca-Cola CEO Kent said.
According to Kent, one supplier has already announced its intention to build a dedicated CO2 compressor production facility in order to meet the company's HFC-free refrigeration needs.