The legal market for refrigerants with high GWP (Global Warming Potential) is shrinking year by year. This is all because of the quotas. Pursuant to legal regulations, i.e. the EU F-Gas Regulation and the Polish F-Gas Act, the number of tones of carbon dioxide equivalent (t CO2eq) of refrigerants that may be imported into the domestic market from outside of the UE decreases each year. The quota for 2021 was 45% of the base value from 2015. Does this mean that a lesser amount of refrigerants is present on the market? Not necessarily. In Poland (according to the Reports Database of the Industrial Chemistry Institute [Baza Danych Sprawozdań Instytutu Chemii Przemysłowej]) the number of refrigerant CO2eq tones decreased in 2018, but the quantity of the same refrigerants (in metric tones) increased. This apparent contradiction is related to the GWP value of the refrigerants placed on the market – considerably more refrigerant with a lower GWP may be introduced into the market than the allowed amount of greenhouse gas (e.g. 1 CO2eq ton of R404A is only 0.255 kg of the refrigerant and 1 CO2eq ton of R1234ze is 143 kg of the refrigerant). So, there are more refrigerants in the market, but thanks to lower GWP values, they are more environmentally friendly. Celebrating the great success of the F-Gas Regulation might seem in order, but…
This situation only applies to the legal market…
In the EU, the refrigerant market is governed by the rules of a regulated market – refrigerant prices are high, legal trade requires the seller and buyer to hold appropriate certifications and demand is significantly higher than supply. In such a situation, a refrigerant black market is developing and doing well, which is additionally supported by the increasing significance of the Internet as a sales channel – a significant part of sales takes places on e-commerce or auction portals (marketplace).
Illegal refrigerants are most often sourced from China and enter the UE mainly through the Ukraine or Turkey. Customs officers in different countries are taught by cooling industry organizations how to pay attention to potential smuggling routes – illegal cylinders without documents or transport in LPG cylinders. The European Fluorocarbons Technical Committee (EFCTC) estimates that, during the years 2018–2019, as much as 73 million t CO2eq (of which 31 million tones of CO2eq in 2019) of refrigerants were smuggled into the territory of the European Union. EFCTC, which maintains the European platform for making anonymous reports on irregularities in relation to F-Gas products and their trade [https://efctc.integrityline.org], received 111 such reports in 2020. In cooperation with an investigations office, the Committee has submitted 73 documented reports to the European Anti-Fraud Office. Based on these reports, 13 seizures have been made, with the largest one in Romania – more than 7 thousand cylinders of contraband from Turkey in several trucks. Industry press regularly reports how attempts to smuggle large batches of illegal refrigerants ware prevented in different EU member states (e.g. Spain or Bulgaria).
There are several aspects to illegal refrigerant trade. Firstly, there are no F-Gas certificates issued to the entrepreneurs as part of such transactions and, pursuant to the F-Gas Act, both the seller and the buyer must hold such certificates. Secondly, they are delivered in cylinders that do not meet legal requirements – without appropriate markings or in single-use cylinders withdrawn from use in the EU and, of course, without the possibility to receive the product data sheet required under the Polish law. Thirdly, such trade involves virgin refrigerants, which must not be traded in the UE anymore. Fourthly, due the uncertain origin of the refrigerant, a cheap cylinder often contains a curious mixture with, for example, 12% of the proper refrigerant and flammable and toxic methyl chloride as the main component. Therefore, buying illegal refrigerants is not only contrary to the F-Gas and civil laws, as well as fair competition rules, but it is also simply dangerous for the buyer, the service technician working with such refrigerants and the user of the system to which the refrigerant is introduced.
Can we effectively say “NO” to the refrigerant black market?
First of all, as cooling market participants, we can all just act in the proper and legal manner. When buying a refrigerant (always as a company!), one should always choose a supplier with the proper F-Gas certificates for entrepreneurs. Inspecting the cylinder is a good idea, as well as requesting the current product data sheet, confirmed by the Industrial Chemistry Institute. A legal cylinder (described as a “container” in the F-Gas Act) must be properly marked. Valid technical inspection confirmation is necessary: “π” marking imprinted along with the certification body code, admissible pressure (for the particular medium), name of the cylinder owner and a label including the details of the company filling the cylinder with the refrigerant, chemical formula of the refrigerant, full chemical name of the refrigerant and its designation, UN number and warning sign. Cylinders with illegal refrigerant are most frequently not labelled with information on the owner’s name and details of the company filling the cylinder.
If you become aware of illegal (counterfeit) refrigerant being introduced into the market, you should report this to the Chief Inspectorate for Environmental Protection. Suspected illegal incidents may also be anonymously reported via the platform maintained by the European Fluorocarbons Technical Committee [https://efctc.integrityline.org]. The Committee also encourages endorsements for the campaign: #SayNoToIllegalHFCs [https://stopillegalcooling.eu/].
I pledge to do my part TO end the illegal HFC trade
At Entalpia Europe, we say NO to illegal refrigerants (#SayNoToIllegalHFCs) not only in a declaratory manner, but also through our everyday activity. This way, without big words, we act in support of legal and ethical business, the environment, as well as the safety of the fitters and users. We recommend this to everyone 🙂