Self-cooling can threatens efforts to curb greenhouse gases

Attempts to stabilise greenhouse gas emissions could be derailed by a US company's plans to launch a self-cooling drinks can which may use HFC-134a as a refrigerant. Interest in the product is high among UK drinks firms, and the technology will be showcased at the world's leading can industry exhibition in June.

The "chill can" has been developed by The Joseph Company in California. A button on the bottom of the can releases HFC-134a, which cools as it evaporates and so cools the can. Last year, the company won an award for the innovation from the US army and worked with it to produce cans for field testing.

The main environmental objection to HFC-134a is its high global warming potential (GWP) - some 1,300 times that of carbon dioxide on a 100-year time horizon. The Joseph Company is also testing HFC-152a, another potent greenhouse gas with a GWP some 140 times that of CO2, as well as dimethyl ether, a moderately strong contributor to the creation of ground-level ozone.

The company is expected to exhibit the can at the CanEx exhibition in Singapore on 18-20 June. Most of the world's drinks companies will be present.

The Joseph Company claims that the can is "good for the environment" because "it's completely recyclable and uses ozone-friendly, non-toxic materials. Furthermore, it reduces the ozone depleting emissions from leaky old refrigerators and dirty portable generators in developing countries."

CEO Mitchell Joseph told ENDS that the firm plans to manufacture 30-36 million cans in the first year of full production. "Which propellant is used depends on where they go," he said. "We know we can't release HFCs in Europe" - the implication being that doing so elsewhere is acceptable.

The Department of the Environment (DoE) and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have calculated potential HFC-134a emissions from the product, basing their preliminary estimates on a "very conservative" assumption that a 12-ounce can contains one ounce of HFC-134a.

The DoE estimates that sales of chill cans in the UK could reach 350 million, or 3% of the market, by 2000. Emissions would be around 10,000 tonnes of HFC-134a - equivalent to 3.54 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (as carbon), or around 2% of the UK's total greenhouse gas emissions.

If chill cans managed to capture 10% of the UK market by 2000, HFC-134a emissions would be equivalent to 11.73 million tonnes of CO2. This represents half of the projected reduction in the UK's total greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 to 2000 (ENDS Report 265, pp 3-4 ).

The EPA has estimated that if the product secures 10% of the US market by 2000, the equivalent of 142 million tonnes of carbon dioxide would be emitted - almost a tenth of the country's total greenhouse gas emissions.

Reynaldo Forte of the EPA's Stratospheric Protection Division told ENDS that the organisation is "very concerned" about the potential use of HFC-134a. It is looking at effectively banning the chemical's use in the cans by refusing to authorise the application under its "significant new alternatives policy" (SNAP) programme. The Agency will complete its assessment of the chill can in June.

Environment Minister Michael Meacher is prepared to press for an EC ban on the cans, and has raised the issue with other Member States. The DoE is also examining the possibility of national controls under section 140 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990, which enables the Secretary of State to ban or restrict the import, supply or use of any substance or article in order to prevent pollution or harm to human health.

Sources in the can industry have told ENDS that Whitbread has participated in a programme to develop components for the can. Other major drinks companies such as Bass and Scottish Courage have also shown interest. The packaging firm Lawson Mardon says that it was asked by The Joseph Company to manufacture plastic components for the product, but denies that a pilot production line has been set up at its works in Sutton-in-Ashfield. Mr Joseph told ENDS that media reports of plans to set up a production line in south-east England were unfounded.

A spokeswoman for Scottish Courage told ENDS: "we never comment on any packaging developments we're interested in until we are ready to launch the product." Whitbread admitted that it is interested in the concept of the self-cooling can, "but not at the moment because the gases used are harmful to the environment." Bass failed to respond.

Alternatives to HFC-134a are being investigated by other firms. Evelyn Shervington, European Business Development Manager for BOC, told ENDS that the company "is developing a widget which uses a naturally occurring gas that doesn't contribute to global warming or ozone depletion" - and commercialisation of the technology is only "months away".

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