Anna Laukkonen, COO and in charge of the automotive segment in Finland, at Eco Scandic, a Finland-based company offering circular economy solutions for refrigerants, including vehicle air conditioning units, discusses the importance of circular F-gas waste management in the industry.
Refrigerants are F-gases, which are chemicals with a high global warming potential (GWP) required for cooling and heating purposes (e.g., AC units and heat pumps). After decommissioning cooling units or vehicles with MAC (Mobile Air Conditioning), used refrigerants (classified as hazardous waste) are incinerated at a high cost and replaced by new (virgin) gases. This applies to the scrapping/recycling industry. Others in the MAC segment, especially service companies, are “recycling” the gas back to the vehicle (but without quality analysis).
This current linear model lacks sustainability as it fails to motivate end-user recycling and encourages mining and manufacturing of virgin material. For HFCs, the average carbon footprint is approximately 11 kg CO2-eq. per produced kg, and for some HFOs, such as R1234yf, the carbon footprint caused by manufacturing is even higher, around 13 kg CO2-eq. per produced kg (IIFIR 2015).
Other impact categories besides climate change are not accounted for, but mining and manufacturing heavily impact acidification, abiotic depletion, and biodiversity loss.
Using refrigerant reclamation, the traditional refrigerant management model can be transformed into a circular one, significantly improving global sustainability. In reclamation, used refrigerant is processed to match the quality of virgin gas in accordance with AHRI-700, the refrigerant quality standard. The reclaimed product is later returned to the market to substitute imported, virgin, refrigerant gas. As a result, less hazardous waste is generated, and CO2 emissions from leakage and manufacturing of new gases are decreased.
Reclaimed refrigerants have a significantly lower carbon footprint compared to virgin refrigerants because reclamation requires less energy and utilizes only secondary material (recycled material). Currently, around 70% of virgin refrigerants are manufactured in China due to their geological location, where critical minerals for refrigerant manufacturing are readily available. Thus, most countries rely highly on refrigerant imports to service and manufacture cooling units. A reclamation facility can be implemented in any region to improve refrigerant self-sufficiency and sustainability in one fell swoop.
Additionally, by implementing a compensation scheme, the circular model incentivizes producers of refrigerant waste to recycle refrigerants rather than incinerate them at a cost. This incentivized model increases the amount of recovered raw material and reduces waste while boosting the transition to a circular economy.
Legislative elements include endorsement for recycling (or implementation and supervision of BAT-standard in general) and raising awareness regarding substances with a high GWP-value, such as F-gases. As part of the Kyoto protocol, the F-gas Regulation (EC) No 842/2006 and the MAC- Directive 2006/40/EC are tools for the containment and recovery of F-gases.
Mindset shift, especially amongst end-customers and users, is crucial for transitioning to a circular economy. We are certain that in case it would be a commonly known fact that F-gases are responsible for up to 3% of global CO2 direct emissions (and the HVAC+R sector is responsible for up to 20% of total emissions in the USA), companies handling F-gases or everyone with an AC unit, heat pump or other heating & cooling equipment would ensure that the F-gases are recovered and recycled adequately. This would lead to a decrease in direct CO2 emissions. We have been raising awareness through several media channels. The goal is to have a more systematic and fact-driven awareness-raising campaign.
The objective of the project is to avoid emissions of HFCs and HFOs into the atmosphere (the latter of which we do not know all future environmental effects of) and to contribute to more cost-effective measures for the safe recovery, collection and treatment.
Closed loop in the Nordic automotive sector
Typically, in industrial countries, all quantities of recovered refrigerant had to be reported to the Environmental authorities, which might be a bureaucratically heavy procedure for the companies.
Together with our partners, we developed a concept where, having all the relevant permits, we report to the authorities on behalf of the private companies which recover refrigerant.
To ensure that the refrigerants are sorted and adequately recovered, we provide contractors with vacuumed and leak-proof cylinders for recovery. To further motivate the sorting of the refrigerants, we implemented an incentivization model in the form of compensation per kg for the reclaimable refrigerant.
The project was started in early Spring 2021, and less than a year later, we have expanded our pool of contractors to 25, including one of the largest vehicle recyclers with 13 locations. Over 700 cylinders were distributed by December 2022 for collection.
One of the largest wholesalers in the automotive industry in the Nordics entered the project by distributing reclaimed products back to the Swedish automotive sector, such as vehicle service companies, making it a closed-loop within the automotive industry.
Together with our partners, we are aiming towards replacing virgin refrigerants with reclaimed products in the Nordics for the automotive sector by 2025.
Summary: a functioning closed-loop structure should include, but not be limited by, the following elements:
- Establishment of an easy-to-use reporting system for the end-customers
- Systematic and incentivized recovery of used refrigerants
- Low threshold for the end customers to reach out
- Availability of adequate recovery cylinders
- Tackling the burden of illegal import
To discover more about Eco Scandic, visit https://ecoscandic.fi