CFC ban busters

Despite restrictions, many UK manufacturing firms are still using environmentally threatening CFCs. George Paloczi-Horvath reports

British industry should have phased out the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other ozone-depleting chemicals in manufacturing processes under a European Union ruling which took effect on 1 January 1995. But some UK companies are still using ozone-unfriendly solvents in precision engineering applications.

In most cases, the use of these solvents is still legal because they were acquired before the ban. Some companies retain sizeable stocks. But there is also some concern about CFCs illegally imported from China.

The Department of the Environment’s August 1996 report UK Use and Emissions of Selected Halocarbons said `the majority of end use sectors have successfully phased out their consumption of CFCs before the end of 1995′, meeting not only EU objectives but also those of the 1987 Montreal Protocol. Consumption for the `majority of solvent and aerosol uses is now zero’, it said.

But the research organisation Ethical Investment Research Services (Eiris) says: `Acording to the latest information they have provided us with (1996), we are aware that some UK companies continue to use ozone-depleting solvents such as 1,1,1-trichloroethane, although most of these are in the process of switching to alternatives.’

Governments have also been warning of the dangers of the trade in smuggled CFCs since their production and use in Europe was banned in 1995. This trade exists because developing nations such as China are still allowed to produce CFCs until 2010.

In July a smuggling operation involving Chinese-made CFCs was smashed by European customs authorities and the European Commission. This imported 1,000 tonnes of CFCs worth millions of pounds to Europe.

Meanwhile US government agencies, including the Central Intelligence Agency and the Environmental Protection Agency, are involved in what the EPA Web site describes as a `global dragnet’ against the black market in banned CFCs.

Some fire extinguishers are exempt from the 1995 EU limitations, although the UK’s Fire Extinguisher Trade Association says these will all be old halon-filled extinguishers. New or refilled extinguishers use carbon dioxide.

So which British firms still use ozone depleting substances to support manufacturing, and why?

The main solvent application is in the cleaning of precision engineering components, as well as metal-cleaning and electronics. There are now alternative solvents for the cleaning application, including Petroferm’s Axarel 32 solvent and DuPont’s Vertrel family of hydrofluorocarbons.

British Aerospace admits it uses 1,1,1-trichloroethane for `a small number of specialist applications’. A spokesman says BAe is `planning to replace it in the near future’. BAe also says it still uses CFC-113 `in small quantities for specialist cleaning in the manufacturing process – we are looking to phase this out’.

British Airways uses CFC-113 and 1,1,1-trichloroethane to clean heavy engineering parts during aircraft maintenance. BA’s environmental report says in 1996-97 the airline used 14,315 litres of these ozone-unfriendly substances.

GKN says it has phased out 1,1,1-trichloroethane and CFC-113. Instead of CFC-113 it uses the solvent Suva, which is not ozone-depleting.

Ship and artillery maker VSEL admits it it still using `very small quantities’ of both ozone-depleting solvents, `mainly in laboratory clean areas’ and `only where there is no alternative’. The firm says it is actively seeking alternatives.

Why are companies keen to use solvents such as CFC-113? The answer, according to the DoE, is its chemical stability, low toxicity and zero flammability. And the replacements for the ozone-threatening solvents `don’t get machines clean enough’, says an Eiris source.

The electronics sector uses solvents as a cleaning agent for `defluxing’ or the removal of residues which remain on printed circuit boards after soldering.

Although most companies in Britain and abroad are anxious to declare their respect for environmental concerns, some are trying to resist the consensus that, without radical change, irreparable damage will be done to the earth’s climate.

Thus BP America is a member of a US `public interest’ organisation calling itself the Global Climate Convention which, despite its seemingly eco-friendly title, campaigns against the view that there is a human and industrial influence on climate change.

Last year, John Shlaes, the GCC’s executive director said it would cripple the US economy `and the ability of the US to compete in international markets’ if global warming were taken seriously.