It may seem a position resembling those by Greta Thunberg, the young environmentalist whom we find in the news from around the world, and perhaps the thing will be source of some troubles for some readers, but this is not an indictment, on the contrary, it is an invitation to face a reasoning that runs through the whole chain.
Let us start from an assumption that is mitigating, but up to a certain extent: it is hard to consider a refrigerating plant, even the simplest one, like the refrigerator you have in the kitchen. The system complexity is certainly more challenging, even where you choose standard solutions and the central, like distribution elements (counters and cabinets) are bought from a catalogue and not specifically designed and implemented. The compressor-condenser-evaporator system is not comparable to a system where everything is sealed in a package leaving the factory and loaded on a truck!
However, this cannot and must not constitute an alibi, an excuse for not addressing an issue that is relevant, and not only for environmental but also for economic and commercial reasons, as proven by the recent crisis concerning the availability of products and spare parts, owing to the very strong slowdown of manufacturing and delivery of raw materials and semi-finished components: the correct management of a life end allows reintroducing on the market materials, semi-finished products and elements that decrease the exploitation of raw materials and processes with environmental impacts and consequent costs linked with the planetary scale of transports and supplies.
An industry with a cutting-edge (product side)
We cannot deny it, industry has always been more sensitive to this reasoning than other links of the supply chain: the “simple” need of updating the catalogue has matched a growing awareness, increasingly demanded by the market itself and by the public opinion about environmental issues, of increasingly insistent calls to a less impacting production and to the implementation of less invasive products in both the use and disposal phase.
Real revolutions have taken place and they have lightened the impact index of a new product that is released on the market and, concerning this, laws and regulations have performed well, boosting manufacturers to join Ecodesign principles.
We have been affirming it for a long time in many places and we would be happy to tell you any objections and arguments of those who contradicted us; on the contrary, we receive silent nods and unfortunately it seems to be so: companies’ huge investment in sustainable innovation accounts for a variable rate ranging from 10% to 20%. What happens, then? That the whole energy efficiency, all environmental quality of products, instruments and solutions is scarcely exploited and the data found in lab tests do not coincide with real ones. It is true that perhaps the data from test chambers are often unable to transpose the whole of practical matters met in installations and in real operation conditions but it would be the right time to rebalance the investment, lavishing not only in research and development but instead in the massive training about products and services.
The refrigeration technician is behind for several updates concerning the correct understanding and the consequent aware use of the potentialities at disposal and, in many cases, this has induced to less and less structured and increasingly “hasty” behaviours, like for instance the massive adoption of solutions that are commercially interesting, but less rigorous from a technical point of view. As a matter of fact, bitterly notes Giovanni De Giovanni, founder of Novafrigor and about to publish a maintenance manual in commercial refrigeration for this publishing house, «some components are chosen because they create fewer troubles: when they break down, they are thrown away, and besides they cost less than others, more durable or easily maintained, therefore who chooses them benefits from a double, commercial and simplifying convenience, but actually they not always take care of the plant, because they adopt simplifying instead of optimal solutions.
What about the life end? We have not forgotten it, on the contrary, under certain respects it is anyway necessary to start from the preliminary assumption about the gap between what might be and what actually is: the substantial ignorance of energy and environmental results that might be seized if the refrigerator technician was more aware of what industry puts in his hands (shared “fault”, as we have just said).
Concerning this, we are facing a “bad time”, in which we have perhaps run and go on running the risk of exchanging a part for the whole: the F-Gas Regulation has literally compelled us to focus almost our entire attention on a fundamental component of the refrigerating system, the refrigerating gas, for which we have debated for years on how managing the phase down and in 2021 various subjects, Assoclima and Assofrigoristi at the head, worked hard to start establishing practical operational rules that could allow us to manage a life end, the one of the heat-carrying fluid, in which the absence of a shared methodology and of a well-tested organization generates many problems. However, this is not and cannot be the right excuse to forget all the rest of the plant.
Still in the drawing up of the maintenance manual signed by De Giovanni, appears a chapter that has been opportunely introduced, precisely the one about the management of the elements of a plant in case of deterioration: we are facing a necessary assumption of responsibility by the plant owner and its maintenance technician about a machine service life phase that is often neglected, then hidden, and instead needs attention and sensitivity, because we are referring to situations that, if not managed, generate damages and consequent costs and heavy (sanctions) and if badly managed, they bring us back to the same point, with lower costs and sanctions only.
Sense of responsibility? Not only. They are arguments that also go into the direction of reuse and of recycling, because there is the possibility this happens, but we would like to point out also a serious anomaly of “political” character: the possibility of reselling still operating counters and cabinets for the commercial refrigeration based on gases that are nowadays illegal in Europe and abroad, in Countries where the EU Regulation is not valid.
In this way, we are simply removing the problem! If we parry the blow of sanctions by moving polluting goods abroad, in ambits where the impact of old fluorinated gases in not known, yet, we do not perform a coherent correct action from the environmental point of view! The logic of Not In My BackYard is a loser when it comes to environment, because there is only one atmosphere, until proven otherwise!
A concept to be inverted (or at least to be modified)
We have often heard of planned obsolescence, a field that makes us very uncomfortable when it comes to environment: the life end must be certainly “programmed” in a replacement economy like ours and it is as true that eternally operating plants cannot exist because the environmental and mechanical wear is a factual condition. However, the issue is not just that: we can’t help but notice that the replacement, the transition is necessary also because the technology installed on board of these old machines can be replaced in reasonable times with other, less impacting, but this implies there must be a cost assessment that is extended to the whole life time of the system, a Life Cycle Assessment that leads us to establish what components are obsolete and what not, replacing single elements to keep the functionality unchanged and consequently the energy consumption.
Nowadays, the life end determination is simpler, because the efficiency/performance ratio is more and more easily calculated due to electronics and cloud, but we must not lose sight of the fact this plant analysis methodology needs competence: accepting a life end of the whole system in order not to take charge of individual points is a form of collaboration to the growth of the material quantity to be disposed, a cost that currently remains hidden but that is not bearable as a trend, in an age in which we are induced by the ecologic transition to opt for the replacement of obsolete plants.
It is necessary that competence assesses whether obsolescence concerns the whole system or some of its single elements, obsolescence that is not only quantitative, but also qualitative: if the market provides tools that in a cost-benefit calculation give better efficiencies, permitting to consider disposal costs well amortized or determining the availability of also recycled solutions of spare parts for plants with a shorter residual time, this is positive, we hear saying. However, these evaluations are becoming more and more complex, need a transparent and commercially correct dialogue among manufacturer, plant manager and its buyer.
The black hole of disposal
If today we are finally fighting for a management of the refrigerating gas life end, a chasm opens up of unknown things that concern the whole disposal of what is not gas. What happens to sheet metals, insulating panels, pipes or, worse, whole condensing units or evaporators? It is a pretty mistery because the recycling rate is really low and we are dealing with a real obscure mass of materials of which it would be suitable to establish virtuous recycling courses, for an economic and ecologic optimization that other supply chains have already activated with the WEEE circuit, certainly not perfect but active.
We are taking some steps forward imposed by the regulation precisely in the gas segment, the oil theme has been presided over for some time, although it needs a growing attention, too, due to the delicacy that the disposal of used oils involves, but the cost rise of raw materials- by many heralded as one of the most threatening bogeys for the Italian and European economy in a time of pandemic post shock recovery – must induce us to select and to reuse what is worth not scrapping in a shrewd and decisive manner.
Let us not forget that there are then materials that were used in the past and need suitable treatments for disposal: insulating panels produced with formulations considered no longer sustainable or even toxic today, paints used for treatments belonging to the generation of no longer usable products and so on: in these cases, in absence of reliable concrete possibilities of reuse or recycling, the life end is configured like an operation subjected to even more stringent rules and certainly it has not the characteristics of a generic transport to landfill.
Where are we going?
To tell the truth, we do not know, or better we have not sufficient data to design a curve with abscissa and ordinate, but we take the liberty of asking (certainly not siding with fundamentalists such as Greta Thunberg, but in positive and collaborative way) that everyone does their part and does not hold back.
Therefore, the legislator should not be disappointed with us if we make him responsible for producing an overall coherent legislative formula that certainly takes the available technological evolution into account but especially concretely enables to operate in the ambit of all that is obsolete, ancient and outdated, and anyway still circulating on the market. We need precise, clear, feasible and not burdensome indications, or at least with equally redistributed burdens, to face the matter, to avoid that a single chain player, charged with costs and responsibilities, attempts burlesque or picturesque operations of more or less obvious violation, such as opening refrigerant circuit taps.
Moreover, neither the manufacturer should be disappointed if we ask him to invest more in the training about the use of innovations made available for players on the market and also about a “retroactive” training, giving instructions on how disposing the old product, giving specific indications about problem contents and risk/damage elements the regulation then did not provide, at the manufacturing time, but making special procedures necessary, now at the disposal time.
Installers and maintenance technicians are required a sense of practical concrete responsibility: the environmental awareness must become part of the minimum rules of the profession, because it is not admissible we are promoters or conniving with environmentally harmful attitudes and behaviours, which turn into health and social costs. If years ago we described a future indicating that the refrigeration technician would become an energy manager, now his role as cold manager increasingly implies environmental competences, as environment manager.
Finally, we ask customers the awareness of the fact that – as at home they transport the refrigerator or the microwave oven to the landfill or ask the seller for the withdrawal – the same must happen regarding the corporate, industrial, commercial or service refrigeration plant, indeed much more, because the size and the complexity are higher, and therefore also the impact of a bad disposal.
A utopistic thought? Not all all. It is all the more realistic the clearer the development line of the industry itself, which – we have already said – is looking at the future in virtuous manner. However, like many other times in this market, the appeal we make is looking at the existing plant fleet. We think it is dangerous and guilty to look just forward and to invoke an ecologic transition without toasting for the successful transition, managing all that the transition will bring to the landfill … hoping it is all indeed!