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Europe mired in illegal refrigerant trade

Renewed call for global ban on disposable cylinders amid rising crime wave

AS THE European phase-down of HFCs continues, the trade in illegal refrigerant is booming. This unscrupulous activity, seemingly spurred on by the reduction in the availability of high-global warming potential (GWP) refrigerants, is causing all manner of serious issues – ranging from theft through to the trade of dangerous, improperly packaged and wrongly labelled refrigerant.

The Washington-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), motivated by reports from UK-based publication Cooling Post, has subsequently launched an investigation into the matter. Its report, which involves input from 150 specialists and distributors, should hopefully prompt more significant action. 

Other organisations are also beginning to get involved; the European Partnership for Energy and the Environment (EPEE) has recently joined forces with the three leading European refrigeration organisations – EFCTC, AREA and ADC3R – to call for more enforcement.

“We have supported the F-Gas Regulation and the transition towards lower GWP refrigerants right from the start,” said Andrea Voigt, director general of the EPEE. “We cannot afford such loopholes in the implementation and lack of coordinated enforcement, especially now as the world has agreed on a global phase-down of HFCs under the Kigali Amendment.”

In a press release published by the associations, they further stressed how important it was for businesses to buy solely from reputable and official sources. The concern is justified, given that many of the substances may be impure or contain banned chemicals. These refrigerants can be dangerous or, at best, cause problems. In any case, an installer would find themselves responsible for anything that occurred after using illegally acquired refrigerant. 

Most of the illegal refrigerant traded, including R134a and R410A, is also being sold in non-refillable cylinders that have been banned since 2007. Much of it is being traded without any certification checks, either, and seemingly many containers are not coming in under any kind of quota scheme. In a move hoped to help counter this issue, the EIA has proposed a worldwide ban on these easily smuggled, profitable and non-refillable cylinders

One further saving grace is that the likes of Amazon Italy have been forced to remove online listings, purchasable by all, for unknown refrigerants. Italian businesses, noticing the fact that unregulated sales were taking place, collaborated and took Amazon to court – after which it was forced to remove the adverts. 

Similar trade has also been carried out on outlets such as eBay, the Netherlands-based outlet Marktplaats and the Polish site OLX, where it is not uncommon to find refrigerants listed. The source of these refrigerants isn’t often clear and, in many cases, it may ultimately be stolen. 

Estonia is among the nations to have reported a surge in illegal refrigerants, with its officials stating that in excess of 200 attempts had been made to bring in non-refillable cylinders this year – yet, in 2017, there were reputedly no such attempts. Just south of Estonia, in Lithuania, news outlet 15Min has also reported a rise in sales of illegal refrigerant. Predominantly, the dealers offer R134a but they claim to be able to source whatever is required.

Mindaugas Rutkauskas, member of the board of Lithuanian refrigerant distributors Freolitus, told 15Min that although there had always been illegal trade, the escalation in uncontrolled dealing was “really worrying.” He also warned against the introduction of a quota system, as Rutkauskas believes it may promote even more illegal activity.

In Bulgaria, in southeast Europe, customs officials intercepted yet another 12 cylinders of illegal disposable refrigerant – in this case, R404A and R134a – in the back of a bus. This improperly stored and illegally traded refrigerant, according to Bulgarian news outlet Darik News, was again on its way to Western Europe. Similarly, according to Cooling Post, a total of ten disposable R134a cylinders were recently intercepted by customs officers in Germany. 

Theft, motivated by the potential profits, is also escalating. In August, in Germany, some 1000 cylinders of R134a were stolen from the Arthur Friedrichs Kaltemittel (AFK) company. Another 851 cylinders of R134a were also recently stolen from Westfalen; as the demand for inexpensive and high-GWP refrigerants rises, so will the number of high-profile thefts.

It’s not just automotive and commercial markets that are suffering as a result of the illegal trade in refrigerants; the shipping business has also experienced significant problems – and loss of life – resulting from questionably acquired refrigerants. In 2011, the Maersk Line reported that in three cases its refrigerated containers had simply exploded; all in, three workers were killed in the incidents. A subsequent investigation revealed that material recovered indicated that counterfeit refrigerants had been used, containing R40, which is hard to identify.

Maersk subsequently grounded 844 containers and some other shipping companies were also affected. Suppliers have since been working to develop new identification methods to allow companies to identify non-authentic products. Maritime logistics company Wilhelmsen has since published a guide titled How to Avoid Counterfeit And Illegal Refrigerants, which helps crew identify and avoid dangerous refrigerants. Explosive risk aside, these chemicals can also cause freezing, acid formation, sludge and corrosion – leading to costly and time-consuming breakdowns.

Seizing this refrigerant, of course, is the best solution – but disposing of it problematic for many countries, particularly those further afield. In Tonga, a Polynesian island near Fiji, 30 cylinders of R22 were impounded by customs officers. However, the country does not have any appropriate means with which to dispose of the illegally imported ozone-depleting refrigerant. 

Fortunately, according to a story published by Cooling Post, Australian authorities have offered to deal with the R22 on behalf of the Tongan customs officials. Those not extended aid, or in the position to receive it, would otherwise be stuck with untouchable and unusable refrigerant.

One further snag is that of the recently approved HFC tax in France, which will come into force in 2021 if the industry doesn’t reduce its HFC usage. There are concerns that this will drive companies to seek illegitimate sources, compounding the problem further – particularly given that, at this moment in time, the authorities are already struggling to tackle it. 

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