A couple months ago, an atmospheric study revealed that someone had started producing an ozone-depleting pollutant that had been banned under an international agreement to protect the ozone layer. The new source was preventing the chemical from dissipating on schedule. Although the researchers were careful about what they could conclude from regional measurements, they found that eastern Asia was likely the source.
Now, a UK-based NGO called the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) says that it has uncovered a number of Chinese companies that are responsible. If you’re expecting an elaborate infiltration and undercover sting… adjust your expectations. The investigation seems to have been shockingly easy, with the culprits’ representatives strangely amenable to detailing their illegal operations.
Mystery solved through Google
The EIA started with a simple Internet search, which turned up a few companies that were apparently advertising sales of the banned chemical, known as CFC-11. Like other CFCs, 11 can be used as a refrigerant or a propellant in aerosol spray cans. But it was also widely use to “inflate” foam insulation, and that seems to be the market where at least some of its illicit use has continued.
The EIA team contacted 25 companies that manufacture foam insulation or the chemical mixtures used in the process. Of those, 21 responded, and 18 said they use CFC-11. (It’s not clear how the EIA team represented its inquiries.) In fact, the companies indicated that they thought just about everyone in their industry was using it except for the largest and most accountable companies that might handle about 10 percent of total production.
Some companies were unwilling to name their suppliers—though they said the suppliers moved frequently to avoid scrutiny. But eight sellers or producers of CFC-11 are identified in the EIA report. These companies, too, seemed almost eager to spill the beans and explain that they made very little of the legal alternative to CFC-11. One company described its habit of shutting down production whenever government inspectors came around thanks to a heads-up.
While much of the CFC-11 is being sold to Chinese foam manufacturers, some of the mix used to puff up the foam is being exported. More than one company explained how they got this illegal product through customs: because it’s in a mix, it’s difficult to test, so they simply label it as containing the legal alternative.
The EIA report says one representative responded, “Do you know how we deal with strict export custom inspection? We get those big lumber core boards, build up a container for four barrels of [white agent], and seal it carefully. Nobody at the custom would open it up. Seriously, how can anyone do inspections on that? We also spread putty on those containers to make it really messy.”
Why all this effort to keep using an illegal pollutant? It’s easier to produce and therefore considerably cheaper, for one. The foam manufacturers also feel it performs better than the most widely-available alternative, which is itself being phased out. Other alternatives can require equipment changes, driving up the cost even more.
A 2016 report from Shandong officials discussed the difficult of curbing illegal CFC-11 production in the foam industry, so there is evidence beyond EIA’s report. Its findings will likely result in increased international pressure on China to crack down—and unwelcome pressure on the companies that were named.