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Europe’s illegal refrigerant drama

Sales of illegal disposable cylinders of refrigerant are seemingly on the rise in mainland Europe, with the likes of R124a, R404A and R407C being offered through online trading sites.

In a story published by UK-based outlet Cooling Post, the title’s research revealed that in excess of 80 vendors were offering refrigerants in the classified section of German eBay. Illegal 13.6kg disposable cylinders of R134a were the most common but other refrigerants, including R410A, were also available.

Many of the refrigerants on offer are in non-refillable and disposable containers, which have been illegal in Europe since 2007 – making it clear that these suppliers are acting in an illegitimate fashion. This method of storage was banned because, besides their disposal wasting resources, the containers often contained residual refrigerant that would ultimately be released into the atmosphere. 

The source of these refrigerant cylinders is also often not obvious. The descriptions are frequently vague, the packaging generic and few cite any mention of the need for buyers to comply with any form of regulation. Because the purity and supplier of the contents is not evident in many cases, and the quality of the containers similarly questionable, there are several significant potential safety issues. 

Similarly eye-opening is the sheer quantity of refrigerant available, with one seller reputedly offering 10 cylinders for €3200 ($A5000). Cooling Post also reported that some 5000kg of unmarked R134a and R404A was seized at the borders of Poland, indicating the scale of some dubious operators. 

The increasing trade in illegal refrigerants is a result of the reduction in the commercial availability of high global warming potential (GWP) refrigerants. The refrigerants are being phased down as Europe tackles its fluorinated gas use, which is consequently driving up the price of the gases – causing, in turn, a surge in illegal trades. 

Other European eBay sites, including the UK-market version, also have disposable bottles of refrigerant listed – although the number of adverts is far lower and many are often swiftly removed.  One UK listing, however, detailed a 13.6kg cylinder of R134a that would cost £350 ($A611) including postage. A 12kg cylinder from a reputable supplier would cost more in the region of £500 ($A870). 

Refrigerant from Chinese manufacturer ICOOL was among those identified by some of the German listings, again in illegal disposable containers. However, the company was quick to respond to the issue. In a letter to Cooling Post, ICOOL stated: “Our company understands clearly that pursuant to the EU EN 13322-1 Regulation, such disposable cylinders are prohibited from sales within the EU member states in any manner.

“Our company has never sold or authorized any third party to sell the ICOOL refrigerant packaged in such disposable cylinder within the EU member states.”

Adverts related to ICOOL refrigerant have since been removed by eBay but countless other generic refrigerants remain available. The shortage of high GWP refrigerants and rising prices have also resulted in an increase in theft; in one incident, 17 tonnes of refrigerant were stolen by truck from a refrigerant site operated by German company Westfalen (see below).

Thieves target refrigerants in Europe

IN ADDITION to illegal refrigerant of dubious quality, price rises and stock shortages caused by the European Union’s HFC phase-down are having further unintended consequences in the shape of refrigerant thefts.

Again, Cooling Post has its finger on the pulse, reporting a number of cases in which refrigerant cylinders were stolen around Germany, with a police spokesperson confirming there had been a rise in this type of crime.

As we went to press, 1000 cylinders of R134a had just been stolen from a German supplier, closely following reports that another site had 851 cylinders of R134a pilfered. An attempted repeat theft was prevented when witnesses reported a suspicious vehicle that police found to be loaded with another 133 cylinders. A Dutch national was arrested at the scene, but their three accomplices escaped.

In June, more R134a was stolen in separate incidents at Wilhelmshaven and Osnabrück, while 100kg of unspecified refrigerant was taken in Kubschütz and 59 cylinders disappeared from Potsdam. In April, 16 cylinders of R134a were lost in Friedrichsfeld, just weeks after thieves took 19 bottles of the same refrigerant from the same site.

Also, a vehicle containing several cylinders of R404A and R134a was intercepted on a bridge between Germany and Poland.

Potential danger

ITALIAN refrigerant distributor General Gas has found at least one disposable cylinder of illegal refrigerant to contain a cocktail of substances including the banned HCFC R22.

General Gas published a statement on its website saying it was “witnessing a decidedly worrying phenomenon, which creates serious risks for both the environment and for the safety of technicians and end users”.

The Italian association of technical, special and medical gas production and distribution companies, Assogastecnici, issued a reminder that those breaching regulations risk up to nine months in jail or fines of up to €150,000 ($A239,000).

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