According to Project Drawdown®, refrigerant management is the single most effective solution to global warming. Founder Paul Hawken has lamented that the math led his team to such an uncharismatic solution. It doesn’t lend itself to posters and memes the way a baby polar bear does.
But the math is the math. Drawdown estimates that refrigerant management, done right, will result in a total atmospheric CO2-equivalent reduction of 89.74 gigatons. The problem is largely being addressed under the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, the highly successful international treaty created to address the hole in the ozone created by an earlier generation of refrigerants. The Montreal Protocol banned the production of ozone-depleting substances – old refrigerants 10,900 times as potent as carbon dioxide. The Kigali Amendment expands the Montreal Protocol to phase down HFCs, the replacement refrigerants that are also potent greenhouse gases.
The Kigali Amendment, signed in 2016, began phasing out HFCs in developed countries in 2019; poorer countries will follow suit over the next few years. The Kigali Amendment was not ratified in the U.S. during the Trump Administration, but Congress and the Biden Administration have recently taken action to make it effectively the law of the land, with the strong support of the refrigerant trade group.
A problem remains, however. All over the world, discarded appliances and banks of refrigerant gas await, ready to leak into the atmosphere, sometimes actively being bled off before a car or appliance is discarded. These remain a potent threat to our ability to rein in global warming.
One company (though it looks like two) is working to solve that problem. Tradewater takes a two-pronged approach. Its Refrigerant Finders branch offers cash for people’s old refrigerant. In some cases, they’ll come pick it up, otherwise you can mail it to them and receive payment. Refrigerant Finders doesn’t talk about global warming on its website. Founders Tim Brown and Gabe Plotkin know that some people don’t believe in it, and they aren’t interested in having the argument; they’d rather get the gas. Once they’ve collected it, it’s incinerated in a permitted hazardous waste rotary kiln incinerator which eliminates 99% of the global warming potential. Since 2012 Refrigerant Finders has neutralized between 150,000 and 250,000 pounds of refrigerant a year, mostly in small cylinders and cans. This fact is expressed on Tradewater’s website, “Since 2012 the company has destroyed 4,660,000 tons of CO2 equivalent, or 789,000 houses powered for a year, 5.24 million gallons of gas used, 11.5 billion miles driven, or 10.8 million barrels of oil consumed.”
Tradewater’s website does talk about global warming, offers calculators so visitors can estimate the amount of greenhouse gases (GHGs) you emit as a household, for travel, or for a specific event, and sells carbon to support its work. Most of the funding for this for-profit company, however, comes from working through the California cap-and-trade system. Companies that want to emit more than their permitted amount of CO2 need to buy carbon offsets. Tradewater is one place they can get them.
Tradewater’s work has mostly been in the United States to date, (they have collected gas from every state except Alaska) and there is more to do. Brown says, “(t)he more we look, the more we find. So, there’s a lot of it out there still.”
But the company has begun to work outside the United States as well. In Ghana, officials discovered a large bank of refrigerant canisters that had no further economic use—appliances no longer use it—and no safe destination, as there was no disposal facility in the region. Tradewater ran an experiment, taking the offsets onto the open market and were able to fund the project with help from Intuit, known for TurboTax and QuickBooks. The whole project averted the equivalent of a year’s emissions from 27,601 cars.
In 2020, Tradewater International was formed to scale its search for refrigerants around the world. It is based in Costa Rica. Tradewater is now involved in a project in Latin America called RefriCazadores where they have identified stockpiles of gas and are in the process of hiring workers to collect and destroy them. Recently, a project in the Dominican Republic has been completed, and Tidewater is actively working to develop projects in over fifteen countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa and Asia.
Tradewater offsets were identified as one of the best bangs for the buck by GivingGreen, an organization that rates environmental charities. GivingGreen notes some lack of transparency in this for-profit company but says, “Over all we believe that the offsets offered by Tradewater are highly credible and that purchasing Tradewater offsets has a direct link to decreasing the amount of GHGs in the atmosphere.” Tradewater’s credits are verified by the American Carbon Registry (ACR) and Verra. Verra’s verification process accounts for the carbon footprint of obtaining and transporting the gas.
People with gas to dispose of can go on the Refrigerant Finders website to learn more about how to dispose of it and get paid. There is a process for weighing gas and subtracting the weight of the canisters. Customers will then be sent a shipping box. People wanting to buy offsets should visit Tradewater’s website at https://tradewater.us/.
Jessie Haas lives in an off-grid cabin in Westminster West, VT. She is the author of over forty books for children and adults.