CFC treaty fuels black market

Published November 1, 2000

New research in the journal Atmospheric Environment warns that a growing worldwide black market in chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) may threaten recovery of the Earth’s ozone layer.

The illegal trade is a direct result of CFC production restrictions embodied in the Montreal Protocol, an environmental treaty touted as a model for international cooperation and precautionary action on global environment issues.

In the May 23 issue of Atmospheric Environment, Julia Newman reports that the Environmental Investigation Agency, an international non-governmental organization with offices in London and Washington, DC, has been investigating the global black market in these substances for the past three years. According to Newman’s article, “New Directions: Uncovering the illegal trade in CFCs and halons,” the agency has developed a comprehensive picture of the major smuggling routes, methods used to avoid detection, and firms involved. It’s estimated that 15 percent of the CFCs used in the U.K. have come via the black market.

Also in that issue, Paul Fraser reports that the illegal trade represents an additional 10 percent of global production of CFCs and halon, but only 1 percent of the global bank of these materials. According to Fraser, writing in “Will illegal trade in CFCs and halons threaten ozone layer recovery?” illegal production of around 20,000 ozone-depleting tons of CFCs each year for the next 10 years will increase ozone depletion over the next 50 years by 1 percent.

Illegal trade in CFCs and halons at current reported levels is thus only a small threat to ozone layer recovery. However, as Fraser concludes, what the smuggling does threaten is the viability of fledgling efforts in CFC and halon recovery, recycling, and destruction.

More than a decade ago, in 1987, 155 countries signed the Montreal Protocol, pledging to stop producing CFCs and other chemicals said to be harming the Earth’s ozone layer. Today, reports Joe Schwarcz in his book Radar, Hula Hoops and Playful Pigs, over 30,000 tons of CFCs are illegally traded between developing and developed countries every year.

The smuggling problem first emerged in the mid-1990s, when the production ban on CFCs and halons became effective in industrialized countries. By 1996, illegal CFCs worth an estimated $300 million a year were flooding the market, and the supply has grown since. At one point CFCs were second only to cocaine in terms of the value of contraband passing through the port of Miami.

The Russian Mafia and the Chinese are heavy players in this illegal trade. Russia was supposed to have phased out the manufacture of CFCs by 1996, but at that time it still had at least seven factories producing these chemicals. And, as Schwarcz has pointed out in Playful Pigs, “These days the Russians have bigger problems to deal with than the deteriorating ozone layer.”

China is now the leading supplier of black-market CFCs, reports Newman. The Chinese have a cluster of trading companies based in the province of Zhejiang, east of Shanghai; some of these advertise cheaper CFCs and halons on their Web sites. They also make postings to trade bulletin boards.

Chinese CFCs and halons were involved in the largest smuggling case of ozone- depleting substances to occur in Europe. An extensive web of middle-men and brokers had been able to bring in over 800 tons of material subsequently sold to customers in the UK, France, Belgium, Italy, Greece, Hungary, and the U.S.

How is the smuggling done? Sometimes containers are mislabeled as legal. In some cases the gases are hidden inside larger cylinders of another gas–the equivalent of the false-bottomed suitcase.

In some countries even this deception isn’t needed. Fred Pearce explained in the October 26, 1996 issue of New Scientist that adding nitrogen to cylinders containing illegal CFC-12 raises the pressure in the cylinder to match that used for HCFC-22, a substitute that is still legal. And if a pressure reading is the only check that is made, the cylinder passes.

Profit is the driving force behind smuggling. Since some of the chemicals that are still widely sought have been banned from production in industrialized countries, production in certain developing countries has soared. According to Schwarz, Mexico produces freon legally for roughly two dollars per pound; in the U.S. a pound can be sold for 10 times that amount. Newman reports a kilo of halon 1301 costs upwards of $25 in the U.S., but is on sale for just $8 in China; one kilo of CFC-12 costs around 12 pounds in the U.K. but can be bought in China for 1 pound.

Schwarcz discloses that the World Bank has called on Western countries to donate $40 to $50 million dollars to help Russian freon factories switch to alternate products. At present, only about $13 million has been pledged. Schwarcz suggests one of the reasons the funds may not be forthcoming is that some politicians realize ozone holes may be easier to deal with than bullet holes.

In his New Scientist article, Pearce quotes this warning from Duncan Brack of the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London: “If the CFC problem cannot be tackled, this will be a clear signal that environmental crime is not taken seriously.”

Jack Dini is a scientist and environmental writer in Livermore, California. He can be contacted by email at [email protected].

For more information

see Joe Schwarcz, Radar, Hula Hoops, and Playful Pigs: 62 Digestible Commentaries on the Fascinating Chemistry of Everyday Life (ECW Press, September 1999, 296 pages), available for $15.25 at