Air Date: Week of November 12, 1993
Host Steve Curwood talks to Benedict Herlin of Greenpeace about Germany's CFC-free hydrocarbon refrigerator. The Green Freeze fridge is proving popular in Germany, despite concern that early refrigerators run on similar fuels were prone to explosion.
CURWOOD: Much has been made of the economic benefits that western Germany has provided to the former East Germany, and also of the environmental degradation that occurred in the east under communist rule. But in fact, the reunification of Germany has been a two-way street for the environment and the economy, and there's no better illustration than the rapid development of ozone-friendly refrigerators. Last year, the environmental group Greenpeace paired up with an eastern German firm to build a fridge that was cooled by something other than ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons. Greenpeace provided the marketing know-how, and the eastern Germans provided the technology - an updated version of once-common hydrocarbon refrigerants - in this case a mixture of propane and butane. The result was the hugely successful Green Freeze refrigerator. Greenpeace says many thousands have already been sold. On a recent visit to the eastern city of Dresden, I spoke with Greenpeace's Benedikt Härlin, about how the partnership produced such a successful collaboration from what was thought to be an obsolete technology.
HÄRLIN: Well, it's been around for a long time, before CFC's have been used and invented in the Forties. A lot of refrigerants were used and some of them were hydrocarbons such as propane and butane, and they were quite dangerous in these days because people had big compressors and lower technology and so there was this rumor of exploding fridges. So it is not a new invention anyway, right? It is just the use of an already known technology with high accuracy and high technology today.
CURWOOD: So what did you do next?
HÄRLIN: Well, we found a company here in Saxony, east Germany, which was willing to produce prototypes for us and we commissioned ten prototypes to be built. And during the course of this period, the Troihand (sic) which is the big State-owned company who tries to privatize all the assets of the former GDR, and decided to close down this very company. And so we stepped in, we make a big press conference, we said this is not possible, you cannot kill a company that is trying to save the world, right? But they said well, but the consumers won't like it, and there is no chance for it and so on. So in order to prove that the consumers are much better educated than the Troihand (sic) and the industry, we started a big campaign to pre-order such CFC-free fridges, and we managed to get 70,000 orders within more or less eight weeks. Now these days we have won this campaign and we have succeeded in getting all major German fridge manufacturers to switch to this hydrocarbon technology.
CURWOOD: How much do these refrigerators cost, compared to refrigerators that use Freon and other CFC's?
HÄRLIN: They are cheaper, actually. Hydrocarbons are cheaper than CFC's and they are much cheaper than HCFC, and also it depends on the quality. And so it's a wide range between the low end of some 600 marks, that would be something like, say, $400, and up to $1000 for a high end product.
CURWOOD: What about safety? These refrigerators can blow up. Why are they safer now?
HÄRLIN: Well, they can blow up, as too cigarette lighters can blow up. Still you have a lot of cigarette lighters around. Everybody who cooks or heats with gas handles much much bigger amounts of these so terribly dangerous gases. It is not a real threat. Nobody claims that it is a real and significant threat. It is indeed a question that fridge makers are not used to handle any risk, right?
CURWOOD: Do you think we could use these in the United States?
HÄRLIN: Oh, yes, definitely. We've been negotiating with Whirlpool and Amana and Frigidaire and what's the, General Electric of course. And they all have some reservations, they claim it was especially complicated in the US because of the product liability laws, and all these terrible lawyers who will cost them a lot of money even if no fridge ever explodes. But I'm quite confident that in the course of this or at least next year you will see such fridges on the market.
CURWOOD: Well, I want to thank you so much for taking this time with us.
HÄRLIN: Thank you.
CURWOOD: Benedikt Härlin directs the Berlin office of Greenpeace. I spoke with him in Dresden, Germany.
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