"Chill-Can" Packs Heat

A new soda can chills itself on demand. Sounds great, right? There's just one problem.

| Tue Jul. 22, 1997 3:00 AM EDT

Update: After this article was published, The Joseph Company redesigned the self-cooling can to address the issues mentioned below. Because of the redesign, the company subsequently received a corporate responsibility award from the EPA in 1998.

 They're calling it the Holy Grail of can technology: the Chill-Can, created by The Joseph Company of Laguna Niguel, Calif. With just a push of a button, the consumer's beverage of choice is 30 degrees cooler in seconds. Beverage World magazine reports that major marketers have already tested prototype Chill-Cans in consumer focus groups -- one group agreed they would even switch brands to get the self-cooling cans. The Joseph Company claims it will roll out Chill-Cans commercially later this year, and produce more than a billion in the next three years.

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Wanna sip? Not so fast. The hydrofluorocarbon gas (HFC 134a) used to chill the beverage is one of the most powerful man-made greenhouse gases, a whopping 1,300 times worse than the dreaded carbon dioxide (CO2) for heating up the planet. Push the button on the base of the Chill-Can and after 90 seconds of hissing -- as the HFC liquid inside the aerosol container is released as a gas into the earth's atmosphere -- you not only have a cool drink but also a serious environmental problem. "Opening a single self-chilling can," says Christian Patterson of Ozone Action, "would have the same effect on global warming as driving a typical car 200 miles." In other words: Cold drink equals hot planet. Not cool. The Chill Can

Companies like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and DuPont agree it's a bad idea. Says Coke spokesperson Carol Martel, "We have no plans to go forward with [The Joseph Company] until they address our environmental concerns with the technology." The two principal makers of HFC 134a, DuPont and Britain's ICI, announced last month that they will not sell the chemical for use in self-chilling cans.

But there's more bad news for the Chill-Can: The Environmental Protection Agency doesn't like it either. Prompted by press accounts of the new can, the EPA's Division of Stratospheric Protection did a quick study of its global warming potential, and found that the can and its HFC 134a gas could single-handedly wipe out the nation's goal for reducing global warming emissions under the 1992 Rio Earth Summit agreements. An alternate chemical that The Joseph Company is using for a military project, HFC 152a, would have a lesser effect -- but is still 140 times worse than CO2 for global warming.

In a letter to the U.S. Army obtained by the MoJo Wire, the EPA warns: "Assuming that self-chilling cans capture just 10% of the canned beverage market, and assuming only one ounce (out of an estimated range of 1-4 ounces) of HFC 152a is used per can, the addition to U.S. emissions of global warming gases would be...more than ten percent of the greenhouse gas emissions reductions goal under the Climate Change Action Plan (CCAP). A similar calculation for HFC-134a...is larger than the goal itself."

The Army asked the EPA's advice because it is working with The Joseph Company to develop a Military Beverage Chiller, dubbed the Individual Canteen Cup Cooler (IC3 or "Ice-Cube"), using the HFC 152a gas. Gerald Darsch, director of sustainability for the Army's Soldier Systems Command, explains that the chiller is needed because medical studies show chilled drinks encourage parched soldiers to drink more liquids.

Still awaiting EPA approval of the new device, the Army jumped the gun and pinned a "Rookie of the Year" button on The Joseph Company last year. Darsch assured the MoJo Wire that the Army "absolutely will not use HFC 134a," will wait for EPA approval of HFC 152a, and "will do nothing that will have a dramatic negative impact on the environment." Further, he said, the Army is not paying for The Joseph Company's research and development of the product: "I don't want my tax dollar paying for this, do you?"

Although EPA has approved both gases for closed refrigeration uses, as in car air conditioners or refrigerators, the only open-air or "directly emissive" use that HFC 134a is approved for is medical inhalers. Drusilla Hufford, director of EPA's Stratospheric Protection Division, says, "Unlike cooling a beer, taking a puff to recover from an asthma attack is more important. No one's ever died from the desire to have a cold beer."

Before The Joseph Company can market the Chill-Can in the U.S., it must pass EPA review under a program for chemicals that replace the old ozone-depleting CFCs -- but the EPA says the company still hasn't submitted the product.

Maybe that's because the company is busy overseas. Earlier this month the Brazilian business newspaper Gazeta Mercantil reported that The Joseph Company is investing $20 million to erect a plant in Brazil that could eventually produce 800 million Chill-Cans per year, beginning next March. The Joseph Company would not respond to MoJo Wire queries except to say that it will hold a press conference sometime next month.

There are no international controls on HFC 134a or HFC 152a -- but that may change soon. Last month Britain's environmental minister, Michael Meacher, warned that the Chill-Can would wreck the U.K.'s efforts to cut global warming emissions, and asked the other 14 European Union environmental ministers to block the introduction of the can into Europe. He also vowed to stop a Chill-Can plant from being built in southeast England. And Europe's major producers of HFC 134a have already agreed not to use the chemical in self-chilling cans.

Meanwhile, back in the U.S., NASA is paying The Joseph Company for research and development -- but not for the Chill-Can. The space agency wants a new device to chill beverages and ice cream, using water evaporation and the natural vacuum of space. Dr. Charles Bourland, a NASA food scientist, scoffed at the idea of using the Chill-Can with its HFC gases inside the space shuttle, explaining that it would be like turning the shuttle into the inside of an air conditioner. "Because it releases the gas, it can't be used in a closed environment." A closed environment, that is, like the planet Earth.

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