When Inside Climate News reporter Phil McKenna needed a new refrigerator, he knew to steer clear of any appliance that uses super-potent greenhouse gases to cool his groceries. As someone who often writes about the kinds of “super-pollutant” chemicals that might be lurking in a shiny new fridge, he knew just what to look for.
Or so he thought.
The fridge McKenna bought ended up being a “climate bomb” — one that contained a greenhouse gas literally thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide. He wrote about his saga for Inside Climate News.
“I knew that there were two types of refrigerators on the market — ones that were climate-friendly and ones that...were ‘climate bombs.'"
“I knew that there were two types of refrigerators on the market — ones that were climate-friendly and ones that, as I write, were ‘climate bombs,’” McKenna says.
Specifically, he wanted to avoid buying a refrigerator that uses hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, chemical refrigerants that are thousands of times worse for climate change than carbon dioxide. Instead, he says, he wanted a refrigerator that uses isobutane, which is “only a few times worse than carbon dioxide…and in the small amounts used in refrigerators, essentially negligible as a greenhouse gas.”
“I thought I had this all locked up,” he says. “I had recently seen [that] Future Proof, a website that does reviews of consumer goods with a focus on sustainability, had just profiled the most climate-friendly refrigerators of 2020. So I went there and found one that looked great and I ordered it.”
Before his new refrigerator arrived, McKenna got nervous about whether he had made the right choice. So he called the company, GE, to ask if the appliance really was HFC-free. GE assured him it was. As of January 2020, they told him, all of their refrigerators use isobutane for their refrigerant.
“When the fridge arrives, I open it up and look inside, and sure enough, it uses HFCs. .. I was livid!"
“When the fridge arrives, I open it up and look inside, and sure enough, it uses HFCs,” McKenna says. “It uses the chemical HFC-134A, which is 3,710 times worse for the climate than carbon dioxide over the near term … I was livid! At first, I was a consumer more than a reporter.”
McKenna called customer service again and explained what had happened. "They were surprised, because as far as they knew, the switch had been made,” he says. They told McKenna they couldn't pay for the refrigerator to be returned to Home Depot, where he had bought it, but they could send a service technician take a look at it.
“To me, the answer was clear as day. I knew what the problem was: They sold me one thing and delivered another."
“To me, the answer was clear as day. I knew what the problem was: They sold me one thing and delivered another,” McKenna says. “And I said, ‘I don't need someone to come out and look at this. I need you to take some corporate responsibility.’”
He later spoke to GE’s press office and they apologized profusely, he continues. He was told that more than half of the models the company now sells are HFC-free and within the next couple of years — all of them will be.
“In fairness to the company, I don't believe they misrepresented things intentionally to me,” McKenna notes. “[The press officer] offered to have it returned. At that point, though, I'd already spoken to Home Depot, and they had already agreed to pick up the refrigerator for me.”
Of course, McKenna is hardly the first person this has happened to, as he discovered when he dug deeper into the story. He spoke with the Environmental Investigation Agency, a nonprofit environmental group based in Washington.
One of EIA’s main missions is fighting climate super-pollutants, McKenna explains. “They've lobbied and done a lot of work to make it so that we now have the HFC-free options that are now available. And yet, they had the same issue a couple of years ago when their office refrigerator broke. When they tried to buy an HFC-free refrigerator, they had an incredibly difficult time.”
In the US, climate-friendly refrigerators have only recently become widely available. In other countries, beginning with Germany in 1993, HFC-free refrigerators have been sold and marketed as being climate-friendly, under the name "Green Freeze." More than 1 billion HFC-free refrigerators have been sold and used worldwide.
A climate-friendly appliance would seem to be a great selling point, so why is it so hard for consumers to find out what they're getting? McKenna posed this question to GE Appliances.
“They said, at the end of the day, there's just not that much consumer awareness about this,” he explains. “But I don't think that completely answers it. I think a lot of that consumer awareness could be driven by, and should be driven by, the manufacturers who are making this alternative.”
From other reporting McKenna has done, he has found that making HFCs and other patented chemical refrigerants is a multibillion dollar industry and many of the manufacturers are based in the US. The climate-friendly alternatives, isobutane and propane, are less expensive, more efficient refrigerants that can't be patented.
"[E]very time that Environmental Investigation Agency and others have pushed to get these alternatives on the market, there's been intense pushback from industry."
“This industry would have everything to lose if these alternatives were out there and in use,” McKenna notes. “So every time that EIA and others have pushed to get these alternatives on the market, there's been intense pushback from industry, and my guess is that's part of what's driving this.”
As a result of McKenna’s story, GE Appliances has said they will now post their list of 180 or so HFC-free refrigerators and freezers on their website. The Environmental Investigation Agency website also has a buyer’s guide for HFC-free appliances, so consumers can look at potential models and get the climate-friendly refrigerator they want.
In the meantime, what’s to be done with the millions of refrigerators still in use that have this “climate bomb” inside them?
The EPA has a voluntary program for capturing and disposing of HFC refrigerants in refrigerators, Mckenna says.
“About 600,000 refrigerators in the US each year go through this program, and the gas is properly disposed of, and that's really encouraging,” he says. “Yet, about 9 million refrigerators are thrown out each year, so it's only really a small fraction that are properly disposed of when you have [them] hauled away.”