Self-chill can on ice until safer gas is found
Geoffrey Lean tells how a looming environmental disaster was averted
Sunday 28 September 1997
Last week the American firm behind a revolutionary can - which automatically chills lukewarm drinks at the touch of a button - announced it would "abandon" worldwide plans to use a gas that would hasten global warming. Instead it will work with a British firm to develop a more environmentally benign alternative.
The alternative, which will use carbon dioxide already being released to the atmosphere as waste, is expected to be in the shops next year, if it passes stringent environmental tests.
The abrupt change of plan has been welcomed by both the Environment minister, Michael Meacher, and WWF-UK, the British arm of the World Wide Fund for Nature, which led the campaign against the threat.
The self-chilling can has long been "the Holy Grail" of drinks manufacturers, avoiding the need for ice or refrigeration and offering instant refreshment in even the hottest conditions.
The Joseph Company of California perfected a can that would cool drinks by 30F in less than two minutes, when a button on its base was pressed. But it worked by releasing a gas - HFC 134a - 3,400 times more powerful in causing global warming than carbon dioxide.
By this spring, a production line for the cans was already being manufactured, and 800 million of them were expected to be sold annually within three years, with incalculable effects on the world's climate. Launches were planned, and the process seemed unstoppable, when the Independent on Sunday published a front-page story on the threat in May.
Immediately Mr Meacher - describing the can as "a new and worrying development that could seriously damage international efforts to combat climate change" - promised to try to get it banned in Europe and raise the issue at his first meeting of EU environment ministers a few weeks later.
Greenpeace dismissed the threat as unimportant, but WWF-UK campaigned on it, getting its sister organisations in almost every EU country to lobby ministers. When Mr Meacher raised the issue, he found almost unanimous agreement to investigate the can, with a view to banning the product.
Meanwhile, the two main manufacturers of HFC 134a, ICI and Dupont, said they would not sell it for use in the cans, and the association representing European drinks manufacturers called for an agreement to avoid it.
WWF-UK then embarked on a double strategy: trying to get the release of HFC 134a banned by international treaty, and looking for a less polluting gas.
Now, after talks involving WWF-UK and the British firm BOC, the Joseph Company has agreed "to abandon the use of HFC 134a, worldwide" and the companies have given themselves two months to come up with a can cooled by carbon dioxide.
The new cans will have to pass an independently audited environmental analysis before they are put on the market.
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