A call to close European ports to containers made from the world’s most harmful ozone-eating HCFC gas has been issued by the world’s largest container shipping company – and by Europe's largest conservation group.
HCFC-141b is a hydrochlorofluorocarbon slated for phase out under the Montreal Protocol and listed as a controlled substance under the EU’s 2009 regulation on substances that deplete the ozone layer.
The substance also has a global warming potential (gwp) 725 times higher than carbon dioxide and, when used in polyurethane foam to insulate containers, will emit 27 times more CO2 over its lifecycle than HFCF-free alternatives.
But because the EU’s law allows containers a three months stay of grace in Europe’s waters before being considered permanently “placed on the market”, the shipping company Maersk and environmental group WWF claim that the spirit of the law is being flouted.
“We don’t appreciate the fact that these containers have unfettered access to the EU market given that the EU supposedly banned this substance,” said Erik Høgh-Sørensen, a spokesman for Maersk.
“We are worried about unfair competitive disadvantage,” he added. “The European legislation is helping maintain market demand for HCFC-141b despite its stated objective of doing the opposite.”
Maersk has developed an HFCF-free container alternative called Supotech, which neither warms the planet nor erodes the ozone layer. But it is more expensive.
Industry sources say that 85% of the world’s two million shipping containers use HCFC-141b – as do 70% of new containers. These are mostly made in China which, as an ‘Annex 5’ developing country, was exempted from the original Montreal Protocol ban on HCFC’s.
Maersk suspects that HFCF-containing refrigerated, or reefer, containers are used in European waters before being scrapped, sometimes within the EU’s jurisdiction.
“The EU is being negligent,” said John Nordbo, the head of conservation for WWF Denmark. “There is a ban in place but the Commission seems unwilling to implement or enforce its own regulation.” The commission denies this.
Exchange of letters
In an exchange of letters between Maersk and the European Commission’s climate directorate, which EurActiv has seen, Philip Owen, the head of the Commission’s transport and ozone unit, says that the EU’s hands are tied.
It “is the responsibility of member state authorities to ensure that the relevant legislation is properly enforced and any illegal disposal of spent equipment is adequately sanctioned,” he said in a letter dated 23 January.
Maersk see this as inconsistent with Article 24 of the EU’s regulation which empowers regular review of the law’s exemptions - and allows new proposals - when “technically and economically feasible alternatives to the use of controlled substances become available.”
Maersk fully switched over to Supotech in 2010, a year after the regulation was passed.
But Commission sources say that the company has misread the law. “There is no derogation in place,” an EU official told EurActiv. “Article 24 is for new substances – not HCFC-141b.”
“My impression is that the Commission is afraid of acting because they know that a lot of companies which find this problematic,” Nordbbo said.
Owen’s letter also asked the company to provide “concrete suspicions that containers are imported or placed on the market illegally” to member state authorities.
“Until we have this information, we can not judge the size of the ‘problem’,” an EU official explained.
Maersk says that there are many reefer containers on the European market, but decline to estimate a number.
“We’re fairly certain that there’s illegality going on,” Høgh-Sørensen said. “There’s no way you can have 85% of the world’s reefers containers without their moving virtually freely on the European internal market for an extended period of time.”
EurActiv understands the shipping company is concerned that exposing customers who also use such reefer containers as their information sources could endanger their future business climate.
Maersk freely admits to having a horse in the race but maintains that it should not be punished for being a first mover in the green tech race.
“Allowing reefer containers virtually unimpeded access to the EU market is not in the interests of European innovation, the ozone layer or the climate either,” Høgh-Sørensen said.
The Commission and Maersk will meet soon to discuss the issue.