October 22, 2020

Cold Hard Cash for Your Greenhouse Gas

by How to Save a Planet

Background show artwork for How to Save a Planet

Cold Hard Cash for Your Greenhouse Gas

When we think about what’s heating up the planet, we may picture CO2 from smokestacks and tailpipes. But there are other greenhouse gases that are even more dangerous. And some of these are hiding in garages and sheds all over the country. We’re talking about refrigerants. They’re the secret sauce behind how refrigerators and air conditioners keep things cool. But they’re heating up the planet. This week, in collaboration with NPR’s Planet Money, we take a ride with a couple of guys who tackle these climate threats with a pair of extremely high-tech tools: a van, and some cold hard cash. Then, we talk about the climate solution you could be interacting with every time you buy ice cream.

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Calls to action

  • Find out what refrigerant your local grocer uses at climatefriendlysupermarkets.org.
  • Check out how the big supermarket chains are doing on HFCs using the Supermarket Scorecard.
  • As for your own household fridge, if you're in the market or know someone who is, choose an HFC-free model.
  • Learn more about how to properly dispose of your fridge, freezer, air conditioners, and other such appliances at the end of their useful lives.
  • Of course, you can always call Tim and Gabe to help with disposal too! Check out their work at Tradewater and Refrigerant Finders.
  • Sign Green America’s Cool It! Campaign petition. While you’re there, find a climate friendly supermarket near you and thank them!
  • If you’re a business owner, submit a letter to the Trump Administration asking them to ratify the Kigali Amendment, the international treaty that sets the phase down schedule for HFCs globally. You would be joining many states, major industry refrigerant suppliers, and elected officials from both sides of the aisle.
  • The AIM Act is a bipartisan bill, supported by both the House and the Senate, that effectively would enforce the same HFC phase down schedule as the Kigali Amendment without needing to ratify it – it would cut HFC use by 85% by 2035! However, it’s likely to be vetoed by the current President. So….vote, specifically, #VoteClimate. And when it comes to local candidates those really matter too for things like public transit and composting and bike lines, so please do a little digging of your own on local candidates.

Finally, if you do end up taking one of these actions — do us a favor and tell us about it! We’d love to hear about what you did and what it felt like. So if you do something, record a short voice memo on your phone and send it to us at howtosaveaplanet@spotify.com. We might use it in an upcoming episode.

Where to Listen


Alex Blumberg: This is How to Save a Planet. I’m Alex Blumberg.

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: I'm Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson. And this is the podcast about what we need to do to address the climate crisis, and how we make those things happen.

Alex: So a while ago, you and I, Ayana, had this really interesting conversation with these guys who started a company whose entire business is about cleaning up greenhouse gases with the following tools: a van, and wads of cold hard cash.

Ayana: And the way they put these extremely high tech tools to use is actually super fascinating.

Alex: And this conversation got us thinking, these guys and their story would be a great crossover episode to do with another podcast. A podcast, say, about how the economy works. And, you know, Ayana, How to Save a Planet is not the only podcast I've made.

Ayana: Yeah. It’s not even the only podcast you've made with the word planet in the title.

Alex: Exactly. Before How to Save a Planet, I helped start a show called Planet Money on NPR, and I thought oh, the Planet Money crowd? They would be really into these guys and their story. So How to Save a Planet and Planet Money teamed up, and today on our podcast we are going to play you the story we made together with the Planet Money folks. That’s in the first half.

Ayana: And in the second half, we're gonna talk about a climate solution that you could be interacting with every time you buy ice cream.

Alex: So a jam-packed episode, and let’s start with the Planet Money story. The first voice you’re gonna hear is Sarah Gonzalez. She’s a reporter for Planet Money.

Ayana: Let’s do it.

Alex: All right.

Ayana: Roll the tape.

Sarah Gonzalez: When we think about the things that are causing global warming, that are heating up the planet, right? We usually think about things like carbon dioxide coming out of factory smokestacks or car exhaust.

Alex: But there’s this other greenhouse gas out there that’s even more dangerous. It’s lurking in garages and sheds all over the country. It’s a kind of invisible threat that most people don’t even think about. Except these guys.

Tim Brown: So I'm Tim Brown, and I'm driving in Illinois with my partner, Gabe Plotkin.

Alex: Tim and Gabe are driving an SUV through downstate Illinois. Flat, straight roads, nothing but corn and soybeans as far as you can see. And they’re on a mission.

Tim: Hold on just a minute. I gotta give Gabe the address. It’s 903 North ...

Sarah: They're on a mission to track down some of this invisible threat.

Tim: All right! We’re gonna go collect and destroy greenhouse gases. That's very exciting.

Alex: [laughs] And they’re letting us tag along by video.

Tim: Look at this, we're on a field trip together.

Alex: Tim and Gabe pull into a gas station at one of those rural intersections. You know, the kind where it's two perpendicular roads meeting in the middle of acres and acres of corn. And waiting for them, there in the parking lot, in a red Jeep Renegade, is the guy they came to meet.

Tim: And there he is. Why don't you just go down the street for a minute, Gabe? There he is right there.

Gabe Plotkin: Yeah.

Alex: The guy in the parking lot is holding one of those big metal canisters. If you've ever cooked with a propane grill you know the kind: circular, couple feet tall. And inside that canister is a chemical called R-12 refrigerant.

Sarah: R-12 refrigerant and other types of refrigerants, like R-22, and R-502, they make things cold. This is what a refrigerant is. So this stuff was in old refrigerators, in old air conditioners, in the AC in old cars. But the chemicals keeping us all cool turned out to be making the planet a lot warmer. These refrigerants have up to 10,000 times the warming effect of regular old carbon dioxide. So the EPA—the Environmental Protection Agency—has banned the production of all kinds of refrigerants. New cars, new refrigerators, they cannot be made with this stuff. We have to use newer, safer versions of refrigerants now.

Alex: But the old stuff is still out there in tanks, sitting in car repair shops or in people’s garages. You know, people who like to tinker.

Sarah: And these tanks? They’re rusting. Which is a big problem, because when these tanks rust, the gas inside can leak out into the atmosphere. So these tanks, they’re like little climate change time bombs, just ticking away.

Alex: And Tim and Gabe, their mission is to get to these time bombs before they go off.

Alex: Hello, and welcome to Planet Money. I'm Alex Blumberg.

Sarah: And I’m Sarah Gonzalez. Today on the show, Tim and Gabe and their mission to rid the world of one of the worst greenhouse gases, one remote pick-up at a time.

Alex: It’s a story that involves danger, subterfuge, cash transactions, nudity, and of course, nerdy economic plans.

Sarah: Okay. So there are countless outdated old refrigerant tanks scattered around the country. And Tim and Gabe say the problem is you cannot just dump these tanks in the trash.

Gabe: If you wanted to take it to a dump, they're not gonna take it.

Sarah: They'll say like, “No, no, no that stuff's, like, hazardous material. We don't want it here.”

Gabe: It's hazardous material. The only thing you're allowed to dump there is the empty tank when it's all gone. So you're really stuck. It sits there on your shelf. You have no use for it. And it's eventually going to leak through these cylinders and cans into the atmosphere.

Sarah: If you’re a professional, like an auto mechanic or an HVAC installer, or if you’re just one of those tinkerers who hangs out at Auto Zone, you might have one of these bad, banned canisters. And you could pay to safely dump the chemical out, but only a few places in the U.S. will even do it. And it’s expensive. That’s why there are canisters of this stuff just sitting in old garages, rusting away, and leaking.

Alex: Leaking a greenhouse gas that is thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide. And getting rid of refrigerants is one of the most important things we can do to address climate change, according to a leading climate solutions organization called Drawdown. Which is why Tim and Gabe have come all the way to this gas station in middle-of-nowhere Illinois to meet a man in a red Jeep Renegade named Jeffrey.

Tim: Hello, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Yeah.

Alex: Jeffrey is standing next to a two-foot tall canister of refrigerant that people might recognize as its common name, Freon. Tim, in fact, recognizes the brand name, DuPont Igloo.

Tim: So what is this? This is DuPont Igloo Freon 12. So where did you—where did you find the material?

Alex: Jeffrey says a friend gave it to him years ago. Tim asks him if he was in the HVAC business and Jeffrey says, "No, but my friend was." He said he got the refrigerant because he figured maybe he'd use it in the AC systems of antique cars that he was thinking about rebuilding, but he never got around to it.

Tim: How long have you had it?

Jeffrey: Probably 18, 19 years.

Tim: Uh-huh.

Jeffrey: It’s been sitting on the shelf in the shop.

Tim: And then how did you hear about us?

Jeffrey: I think it popped up on my Facebook one day.

Tim: Oh, really? Like a Facebook ad?

Jeffrey: Yeah, just out of the blue.

Sarah: A Facebook ad popped up that said: We pay good money for your old refrigerant. Jeffrey thought, I have some of that. Answered the ad, and now here we are.

Alex: Tim and Gabe take a sample from Jeffrey, they do a couple calculations where they add up the weight of all the refrigerant, and they have Jeffrey sign some forms.

Tim: You're signing here that you're—that this is your material now. You're handing it over to us. You're also attesting that it was sourced within the United States and not from a U.S government or a Native American tribe. Is that correct?

Jeffrey: Correct.

Tim: Okay.

Alex: And then Gabe pulls out a wad of bills and starts folding them one by one into Jeffrey’s hand.

Gabe: I'm gonna have you sign here, and then give you a receipt for the material.

Jeffrey: Where do you want me to sign? right here?

Gabe: At the bottom there. Just to confirm that you got the money.

Alex: Except for, you know, the signing of the receipt and everything, it feels almost like a drug deal. A cash transaction in this dusty, remote middle of nowhere. Tim wouldn’t tell us exactly how much money changed hands, but it was in the low hundreds.

Sarah: And yet this is Tim and Gabe’s legitimate business. Their company is called Tradewater. And they make pick-ups like this of all sizes, from a one-pound can the size of a spray paint bottle, to a 40,000-pound job they did a while back, where they vacuumed the refrigerant out of an old industrial cooling system.

Alex: After a bit of chit-chat, Tim and Gabe wrap up with Jeffrey. Jeffrey tells them if he hears of anyone else with spare refrigerants, he’ll send them their way.

Tim: Great. Well, Jeffery, how was that? That was painless, wasn't it?

Jeffrey: Yep.

Tim: All right, so if you find any more, you know where to call. We'll come meet you out here.

Jeffrey: If I hear of somebody that's got one, I’ll let ‘em know you guys are buying it. A smooth transaction and you’re paying good money.

Tim: All right. Well, we’ll take good care of it for you.

Alex: So Sarah, did you hear that? Tim just said, "We’ll take good care of it for you."

Sarah: Yeah.

Alex: Well, me and my How to Save a Planet co-host were listening in on this deal, of course. were on FaceTime with them. My co-host’s name is Ayana Elizabeth Johnson. She’s a scientist. And she and I asked Tim and Gabe about that particular comment.

Ayana: When you said, "We'll take good care of this for you."

Alex: Because you—you aren't going to take good care of it. You're going to destroy it.

Tim: Exactly.

Ayana: Does he know that?

Tim: Probably not. We don't really—we don't really talk about that very much.

Sarah: Yeah. They transfer all the gas from the little tanks they collect into a huge tank that looks kinda like a missile, and then they drive that missile-looking tank to a fancy destruction facility.

Tim: Essentially an incinerator. It’s a permitted hazardous waste rotary kiln incinerator.

Sarah: So you burn it?

Tim: We burn it.

Sarah: You burn it. Okay. You're, like, setting it on fire.

Tim: We are.

Sarah: And then do you just see gas in flames? Is that what it looks like?

Tim: Yeah, we don't generally watch it being burned. But you could. You would see through their sort of view window a flame. Yeah, a big, bright flame.

Sarah: Incinerating refrigerants at this special facility actually neutralizes most of the dangerous stuff. 99.99 percent of the bad stuff doesn’t go out into the atmosphere. Time bomb defused.

Alex: Which, if you’re trying to address global warming, this is a fantastic thing, right? After all, this is Tim and Gabe’s mission. So why don't they tell their customers about it? Well, Gabe says their customers aren’t always on board with that mission. In fact, a lot of them don’t even believe global warming is real.

Gabe: This is a, maybe a farce that's been pulled by the EPA or the UN. And so people will hang up and say, “I'm not gonna sell to you. I'm gonna find someone else who's gonna use this the way it was meant to be used.”

Tim: Yeah, some people are really attached to their refrigerant, so we don’t generally advertise that we're gonna destroy it. Because we just never know if somebody—if that will make people uninterested in the deal.

Ayana: That's interesting, because it seems like ...

Alex: That, again, is my co-host Ayana.

Ayana: It's all over your website, right? Like, your website makes it pretty clear why you're doing this. And if people are finding you through Facebook ads, wouldn't they already know?

Tim: Are you on the Tradewater website?

Ayana: Yeah.

Tim: So when we do these transactions, we actually use a different name, a doing business ad called, “Refrigerant Finders.”

Ayana: I love this so much!

Tim: So if you go to Refrigerant Finders' website, you will see a different framing of what we do.

Alex: The home page of the Tradewater website has the words: “Reducing the world’s carbon footprint” in big letters, huge font, over a background of leafy, green fern leaves. The Refrigerant Finder website, there are no leaves, there's no mention of climate change. It just says "We buy your old refrigerant," and it has pictures of men in work boots carrying around rusty canisters.

Ayana: This is super stealth. This is like collecting refrigerants by any means necessary.

Alex: [laughs]

Ayana: Are you the Malcolm X of refrigerants? Yes or no?

Gabe: Couldn’t possibly answer that.

Ayana: Probably smart. [laughs]

Alex: Wow.

Ayana: Does it feel like a bigger win when you do a pickup from someone who's a climate denier?

Gabe: It does feel like a win, for sure. Sorry, I went too far here. That's what happens when Tim navigates.

Alex: Ayana and I hung out with Tim and Gabe for a couple hours as they drove around not telling people they’re saving the planet. And Tim told us that sometimes these pickups can put them in bizarre situations. Like this one time he and a colleague were doing a pickup deep in rural Louisiana.

Tim: Way out in the country somewhere, like down a dirt road. It was an old house in the woods. Eventually somebody came out of this house and told us to come inside. So inside we went. And then we ended up in the bedroom of this man. As I recall, not only did he have no pants on, but he also had no shirt on. He was nude. He was nude.

Ayana: [laughs]

Tim: And he was—and then he said, “Go in the closet.” And opened up the door of the closet, and what was there was a 30-pound cylinder. And so we did the whole transaction. Just like what you heard now except the man had no clothes on. And eventually, he signed the receipt and all of that. I just bought Freon from a nude man.

Alex: So Sarah, besides the odd encounter with a nudist, here is another strange part of what Tim is doing. Tradewater, his company, it's a for-profit business. It's not a non-profit, it's not a government service. And it’s not just a mom and pop operation. It employs 30 people, paying salaries, transportation costs, buying refrigerant from people. And those aren’t the only costs.

Alex: Do they—do you have to pay to have it destroyed?

Gabe: Yes, we do. We pay the destruction facility on a per-pound basis to destroy it. And we generally destroy up to, you know, 20 or 30,000 pounds at a time.

Alex: So far, all I'm hearing are costs. Like, so far all I'm hearing are the money—it's the money you're spending. How do you guys get paid?

Tim: How do we make money? Well, what we do is our work of collecting and destroying greenhouse gases results in carbon offset credits. And then we sell those carbon offset credits to buyers.

Alex: And if I know anything about making podcasts, I believe this is the part of the story where we have to do a quick explainer about what it is you're talking about.

Tim: Yes.

Sarah: Coming up after the break, what it is Tim’s talking about. How you can actually make real money hunting down greenhouse gases one tiny tank at a time.


Sarah: So Tim and Gabe are getting paid to destroy greenhouse gases because of this thing called a carbon offset credit. These credits are a way to get paid for saving the planet.

Alex: And these credits, these "I’m saving the planet credits," they exist in a lot of states, but Tim and Gabe mostly go through the one in California. The California cap and trade system. And here’s how that system works.

Alex: California has placed a cap on how much pollution businesses in the state can emit.

Meredith Fowlie: So refineries, cement producers, food processors, there's a cap on how much all those sources in California can emit.

Alex: Meredith Fowlie is an environmental economist at UC-Berkeley.

Sarah: And you’re, like, a cap and trade expert?

Meredith: I think about it a lot, about cap and trade.

Sarah: Meredith says that this year, California is only allowing 334-million metric tons of new greenhouse gas emissions. That’s the cap. Which, by the way, is what the emissions were in California back in 1990.

Alex: And every business over a certain size in California that wants to emit carbon, has to get permission from the state. They have to get pollution permits. One permit for every metric ton of carbon they want to emit.

Meredith: So 334-million metric tons of carbon permits. And those permits are tradable in a permit market.

Sarah: And by tradable, we mean sellable. Like at auctions, through brokers. The price changes based on demand. But right now, it costs around $17 to emit one ton of carbon dioxide.

Alex: So that is the cap and trade system. There’s a cap on overall emissions, and permits that you can trade. And to give you a very basic idea of how this works in practice, let’s say I’m a cement producer in California—I’ve always wanted to be one—and I need to emit two-million tons of carbon dioxide this year to make my cement. So I need two million permits. But I only have one million permits. So I need another million.

Sarah: And let’s say I’m a food processor in California. I was tired of buying millions of dollars worth of these pollution permits, so I decided to redesign my whole system so that I emit less carbon. So it just so happens I have pollution permits left over, Alex. You can buy mine.

Alex: And technically, I’m buying them from an exchange, which you’ve sold your permits to already. But yes, this is fantastic because with these permits I can now pollute more, although they did cost me $17-million.

Sarah: And this is really great for me because I just got paid $17-million for polluting less.

Alex: And proponents say, this is the whole point of cap and trade. It costs me to do the wrong thing and it pays you to do the right thing.

Sarah: So yeah, those are the two options. Big polluters like us can either pollute less to comply with cap and trade, which is what I did. Or we can buy permits to pollute more.

Alex: Like I did.

Sarah: But there’s a fun third option for polluters like us. We can buy this other thing that allows us to pollute. It's called a carbon offset credit. And here’s what a carbon offset credit is. Basically, people in California can go out and look for ways to prevent climate change. Sometimes even people outside of California can do this, and the state will give them these credits, these carbon offset "I am saving the planet" credits, that they can sell to polluters like us.

Alex: And because polluters like us are paying for these credits, it creates this whole market for people, like, random people to look for ways to save the planet.

Sarah: Like guys driving around in the middle of America?

Meredith: Like guys. Yes.

Sarah: So by California saying, yeah, if you get your hands on refrigerants and destroy them, we're gonna give you some money for that.

Meredith: Yup.

Sarah: People are like, "Well, I guess I'll get in my truck and go find some refrigerants and destroy them."

Meredith: If it makes sense, right? If it pays well and if it covers their costs.

Sarah: And destroying refrigerants, which is what Tim and Gabe are doing, this is just one way you can get paid through carbon offsets. Some states let you do all kinds of weird things.

Meredith: So I'm not a cow scientist, but I understand that there's things you can feed cows so that they burp less and release less methane into the air. And so if you can pay a farmer to feed a cow something that will reduce its burps, that's a carbon offset.

Sarah: That’s an offset. Less burps.

Meredith: That's an offset!

Sarah: So Tim and Gabe could be getting cows to burp less, or they could be planting more trees. That’s another offset. That’s actually a more common offset. Meredith says 85 percent of offsets in California are tree-related.

Alex: Now we should say, not any yahoo off the street can earn offset credits. It’s actually very official. There's thousands of pages of paperwork that you have to fill out, to prove that what you’re doing actually works. So for example with trees, someone has to actually fly around and verify that new trees were planted and that they weren’t cut down too soon. And no matter what your offset is, you have to prove that the offset would not have happened without you, which Meredith says is kind of impossible, but you have to at least try.

Alex: So, like, Tim and Gabe, they have to show that the refrigerants they’re collecting would not have been destroyed if it weren’t for them. And that is really important, because otherwise an offset credit is kind of just a loophole for companies to pollute more.

Sarah: And then, of course, any time you create a market—like this market for offset credits—you have to worry about the unintended consequences.

Meredith: There was a controversial situation where refrigerants—and it was a different kind of refrigerant, this was HFC-23, which is a really powerful greenhouse gas, and it's produced as a byproduct when you make refrigerants. So because it was so lucrative to earn offsets by destroying HFC-23s, you had some companies in India and China who realized it actually made sense to make more in order to get paid to destroy them.

Sarah: So they were like, we can make money by making more of this bad stuff. Let's just make more, and then we'll just keep getting paid to destroy it.

Alex: The stuff we're making.

Meredith: Yes. It just does remind you that there can be some pretty perverse and unanticipated outcomes.

Alex: And because I worked for so long at Planet Money, and I understand if there's one thing working at Planet Money tells you it's that incentives matter. And so I actually asked—I asked Tim this very question about, you know, you're basically getting paid to destroy this thing but, like, what you're doing is you're creating a market for this thing. And so are you worried that people will do just what you described, Meredith? And he was like, have you seen our customers? Like, they're not—it's just like dudes in garages all across, like, middle America. They're not, like, making this in labs to sell to me.

Meredith: And if that's the case, that's exactly what you want, right?

Alex: Back on the road with Tim and Gabe. We’re on our way to meet another one of those customers. Tim and Gabe actually make a decent amount of money selling offset credits to polluters, millions of dollars a year in revenue. Which is good and all, but honestly not what they were hoping for. They started the company 10 years ago, and thought they would have found all the bad stuff by now.

Gabe: It's worth pointing out that, in the past couple of years, we have collected between 150 and 250,000 pounds of refrigerant per year, mostly in small cylinders and cans.

Sarah: And remember, refrigerants are up to 10,000 times more potent than CO2. So 250,000 pounds of refrigerant can be over a million tons of CO2. Tons. Tim and Gabe say it’s hard to know exactly how much warming they’ve prevented, but just think about what they’ve collected so far today.

Tim: It’s probably about 300 tons of CO2 in the back of the car right now.

Ayana: That's some potent stuff back there.

Tim: It is very potent. The evidence is rattling around in the back of Gabe's car now.

Ayana: How long is it gonna take you to find it all and destroy it all?

Tim: All we can tell you is that, the more we look, the more we find. So there's a lot of it out there still.

Alex: It’s late afternoon now. We're back on the highway towards Chicago heading to the last pick-up of the day.

Tim: We’ll pay you on the 18 pounds. And then you've got the three cans.

Alex: They’re picking up a tank of R-12 and several canisters of R-22 from a guy named Dennis.

Dennis: Alright. Thank you guys.

Gabe: Really good to meet you.

Tim: Take care of yourself. Bye bye.

Dennis: You guys be careful.

Tim: Yeah, give us a good rating.

Alex: Not long ago, Tim and Gabe got a tip that there’s a lot more old refrigerant out there in places they hadn’t been looking. In places outside the United States. In Ghana and Senegal, Argentina, and Guatemala. So that? That’s where they’re going next.

Ayana: So how was that Alex, to be back hanging out with the Planet Money crew?

Alex: It was a lot of fun.

Ayana: But you missed me.

Alex: I did.

Ayana: You missed me!

Alex: [laughs] I did.

Ayana: I was right here waiting for you. Don’t worry.

Alex: Through the magic of editing.

Ayana: And there’s more to this story, so I’m glad you're back because we didn’t give Planet Money the full scoop.

Alex: That’s right. We kept some things to ourselves. See, Tim and Gabe are helping to solve one part of the refrigerants problem.

Ayana: But it's not all leaky canisters in garages and warehouses. There's another really big piece of this puzzle, another big source of refrigerants. And that's what we're going to talk about in the rest of the show. This source comes from a place you're probably pretty familiar with. And that place? It’s called the grocery store.

Danielle Wright: When you walk into a grocery store, what you see is a line up of cold dairy, beer, whatever. What’s allowing that to cool is a complex network of interconnected pipes. We’re talking about hundreds and hundreds of miles of copper, very thin copper piping, that’s running this refrigerant gas throughout the store.

Alex: How many miles did you say?

Danielle: Hundreds of miles of piping.

Alex: This is Danielle Wright. And she runs the North American Sustainable Refrigeration Council.

Ayana: I wish it was a more pronounceable acronym and not, like, NASRC.

Alex: NASRC!

Ayana: Yeah.

Alex: But NASRC is working on the same problem that Tim and Gabe are working on, just from a different location. She’s also trying to rid the world of climate-destroying refrigerants, specifically the ones that are coursing through that hundreds of miles of piping behind the scenes in every grocery store that we go to.

Ayana: Yeah, these greenhouse gases are cooling your produce, your meat, the freezer sections of most of the world’s grocery stores.

Alex: And are the reason that I carry a sweater with me whenever I go into a supermarket in the middle of the summer.

Ayana: Do you really? I totally do that. I'm just, like, always have a cardigan with me.

Alex: [laughs] Exactly. And these refrigerants that are in the grocery store, there’s a whole bunch of different kinds of them. Some are the older refrigerants, the same kind that Tim and Gabe are collecting. These are sometimes called chlorofluorocarbons. Say that five times fast. It’s shortened to CFCs. And CFCs, those are the ones we’re no longer allowed to manufacture. And then there’s this whole other group of newer refrigerants called hydrofluorocarbons, HFCs, that are still legal, but are also super-potent greenhouse gases.

Ayana: And here’s the big problem: whether you’re using CFCs or HFCs, all these grocery store cooling systems, they leak.

Alex: How much of these greenhouse gas refrigerants do grocery stores actually leak every year?

Danielle: So an average supermarket is going to leak 25 percent on an annual basis.

Ayana: Whoa!

Danielle: And so what we’re talking about is thousands of pounds per supermarket system. So an average supermarket is going to have somewhere between 3,000 to 5,000 pounds.

Alex: Wow. And how many supermarkets are there?

Danielle: Of the large version, there are over 38,000 in the United States. When you multiply that out, that equates to over 152-billion pounds of CO2 equivalent. So it would be over 150 billion pounds annually—billion—just from the leaks.

Alex: To put that number in perspective, 150 billion pounds is about equal to 18 coal-fired power plants operating for an entire year.

Ayana: So for the last few years, Danielle has been trying to convince supermarket chains to switch from circulating these climate-destroying chemicals to using something else, something “Natural.”

Alex: What is a natural refrigerant? It is the type of refrigerants we first used when we invented refrigeration technology.

Danielle: Natural refrigerants were the OG, original refrigerant.

Alex: Mm-hmm.

Ayana: What is the original gangster of refrigerants? Please tell us.

Danielle: I would say it's ammonia.

Ayana: Did not see that coming.

Danielle: The problem with ammonia, back then, is that it's toxic.

Alex: Right.

Danielle: So choose your poison.

Ayana: This whole keeping things cold thing is super tricky.

Alex: It's really hard. [laughs]

Danielle: Right. And so that was why the answer to replacing ammonia was to create these synthetic refrigerants that weren't poisonous, that at the time they didn't know had these other undesirable characteristics, but there was a very good reason to move away from ammonia: You didn't want your shoppers to die.

Alex: That is a good reason. Still true today.

Danielle: Today, we're coming back around to ammonia, because it has a global warming potential of zero.

Ayana: That's a good start.

Danielle: An ozone-depleting potential of zero. It's excellent thermodynamically. It has excellent efficiency properties. And we have the right safety standards in place, so no longer is the toxicity a concern.

Ayana: It turns out ammonia, that stuff we often use for cleaning, is just one “natural” refrigerant that's making a comeback. Danielle also told us about another natural refrigerant that supermarkets are starting to adopt.

Danielle: If we look to Europe and Asia, where there are more stringent regulations and there’s been a much faster pace of transition and adoption, they’re all moving to CO2, or a vast majority are moving to CO2-based technologies.

Alex: So CO2—I know that might sound a bit ironic, right? CO2 is often the villain in the climate story. It’s one of the main greenhouse gasses that's emitted when we burn fossil fuels.

Ayana: And the problem with carbon dioxide is that there is so, so much of it that we’re emitting, whereas the problem with CFCs and HFCs isn’t that there’s so much of it, but that they are incredibly potent compared to everyday carbon dioxide. CFCs and HFCs are usually thousands of times more potent as greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide. So even if that CO2 in our grocery stores leaks, the amount being leaked from supermarket systems actually has a pretty insignificant effect, compared to the same amount of leaks from one of these more potent chemicals.

Alex: So, Ayana, that brings us to this conundrum.

Ayana: Conundrum?

Alex: A conundrum. We often face conundrums on this podcast.

Ayana: Oh boy, do we ever.

Alex: In fact, the whole podcast is about a conundrum.

Ayana: Oh, Lord!

Alex: So we have these natural refrigerants that work just as well, if not better, than the stuff that we currently use. How do we get people to switch? This question is the exact question that Danielle is trying to answer, and so we posed the question to her.

Ayana: So pitch me. Say I'm, like, a supermarket mogul. I’m sitting in a leather wingbacked chair, drinking whiskey at noon.

Alex: Like, you've just called your assistant, "Who's my 12:00?" And then you walk in.

Danielle: That's right. And that's my strategy, because I'm gonna call on you, the mogul, before I'm gonna go drive around to all the small, you know, independent regional chains. Because if I can convince the big guys to do this, that'll pave the way for everybody. So the first thing I'm gonna say is, "Do you want to be a part of the solution? I am not trying to put you out of business. I'm not trying to shame you. But we've got to work on this solution together."

Ayana: Mm-hmm.

Danielle: And you know what Mr. Mogul's probably gonna say to me is, "You know ...

Ayana: Uh, it's Ms. Mogul.

Danielle: Oh, I’m sorry! Ms. Mogul is gonna say to me, "You know what? I'm smart. I read the paper. I can see the writing on the wall. I know these refrigerants are bad for the environment. I know this is, like, a PR problem waiting to happen. I know that regulations have impacted my stores, because, Ms. Mogul, you have—you're worldwide. You've got stores all over the world.

Ayana: Obviously.

Danielle: And so you know this is already impacting your stores in other places. The U.S., you know, maybe not so much. You could catch a break here. But hey, why don't you get ahead of this? Why not be the leader here and invest upfront? You don't have to worry about fines from the EPA anymore. You don't have to worry about all the staff time that you take to actually, like, compile these reports and report on your leaks.

Ayana: I hate leak reports, it’s the worst part of being a supermarket mogul.

Danielle: [laughs] Well, and the other thing that you're gonna say is, you know ...

Ayana: How much is it gonna cost me? Cost-benefit, long-term, when do I get my money back?

Danielle: [sighs] So that's not—that's not what you want. So what you care about is selling groceries. You don't actually care about the systems keeping them cold.

Alex: Hmm. I’m sensing a dodge.

Ayana: But I really want to know, does this make financial sense for me?

Danielle: It's not in the short-term.

Alex: So Ayana.

Ayana: Alex.

Alex: It's gonna cost you money that you're not really gonna make back for a while.

Ayana: So I've heard.

Alex: How does that make a global, bottom line-obsessed supermarket mogul like yourself feel?

Ayana: Well you know, Alex, as a mogul, I don't really operate on feelings. I operate entirely on spreadsheets. So we're gonna have to crunch some more numbers on this.

Alex: Right. Well, and so far the moguls that have crunched the numbers have not come down on the side of switching over their refrigeration systems to natural refrigerants. Out of the roughly 40,000 supermarkets in the United States, barely one percent are known to have transitioned to HFC-free systems. So basically, Danielle says she needs help in the form of ...

Ayana: Policy!

Alex: You got it.

Ayana: We have to either pay people to switch, or fine them if they don't. Or some other combination, right, of these carrots and sticks.

Alex: And if there's policy that applies to all of your competitors, there's less downside risk in doing it. You're just gonna be like, we all have to do it, so we might as well just all get on board and do it. That's what policy does.

Ayana: I mean, policy is also my love language. But if you want to refer to policy in that very brutal way, that’s fine too.

Alex: [laughs] Your love language!

Ayana: Sweet talk me with your policy solutions. And if you, non-supermarket-owning listener, are sitting there and thinking well, I can't do anything about this, you would be wrong. We actually have a whole bunch of action items for you. Ways that you can get involved, including some federal legislation that's on the table right now.

Alex: And let’s start with that. There’s this bill called the AIM Act. It stands for the American Innovation and Manufacturing Act. And if this bill passes, it would actually phase out both the importation and the production of HFCs by 85 percent by 2035. And it's modeled off of this international treaty called the Kigali Amendment, which limits these gases globally.

Ayana: And the AIM Act actually has the support of both Republicans and Democrats in both the House and the Senate. So people say it would likely pass, except for the fact that Trump would probably veto it.

Alex: So consider this your weekly reminder that we are in the middle of an election, and it really does matter who we elect because they write the rules on climate. And as we talked about in our recent episode looking at the climate plans of the two candidates for president, Joe Biden actually has a good plan. President Trump has pretty much no plan. And so we are on record as officially endorsing Joe Biden for president. We think if you care about the climate, you should vote for him.

Ayana: And speaking of voting, it’s actually not just the president we need to be thinking about, right? We need to think about the climate platforms and plans of every single politician that we elect. So today we have two great resources for you. One is from an organization called Vote Climate PAC, which ranks the climate positions and voting records of incumbent members of Congress. You can find that at voteclimatepac.org. And the other resource is the Sierra Club’s list of what they are calling "climate champion" endorsements for Congressional seats. And you can find that list at sierraclubindependentaction.org/endorsements. And when it comes to local candidates, those really matter too, for things like public transit and composting and bike lanes and all of that so please do a little digging of your own and see where your local candidates stand on climate.

Alex: And besides voting, you can put your money behind supermarkets that are upgrading their systems already. There's this great resource called climatefriendlysupermarkets.org, where you can enter your zip code and see a map with supermarkets near you that are already using low-impact refrigerants. It's actually really cool.

Ayana: And on a very, very individual level, we all probably have appliances in our homes that use these HFCs, and they could leak if we dispose of them properly.

Alex: So if you need to get rid of a refrigerator or an air conditioner, there's some really good info on how to do that responsibly. You should go to greenamerica.org/coolit-disposal. So greenamerica.org/coolit-disposal, and that will give you all these tips on how to get rid of your greenhouse gas-containing appliances.

Ayana: And of course you can just call Tim and Gabe or check out their work. They've got, as you know, two different websites, tradewater.us and refrigerantfinders.com. If you have old refrigerants or equipment containing refrigerants, they will buy it from you, or help you figure out what to do with it. You could end up getting to do a weirdly clandestine-feeling deal in a gas station somewhere with wads of cold, hard cash.

Alex: And finally, you can find all these recommendations in our show notes or in our newsletter.

Ayana: Oh, yeah!

Alex: Which we have mentioned several times on this podcast. Sign up for the newsletter. We always put all of the recommendations plus some additional bonuses.

Ayana: Like sassy TikToks.

Alex: And in this episode's newsletter, you can see Tim and Gabe on their pickup mission as we were all hanging out with them in this sort of virtual reporting trip through a FaceTime call. So you can see that in this week’s newsletter. Again, that’s the best way to sort of like stay on top of all these recommendations that we give at the end, is to sign up for the newsletter.

Ayana: Yeah. So head to gimletmedia.com/shows/howtosaveaplanet, and you'll find our sign-up link right there.

Alex: And we’ll also put that sign-up link in our show notes as well. So you can also just look at your phone right now, the link should be there as well.

Ayana: That’s where you can find all the details for speeding this transition to climate-friendly cooling. There's actually a lot we can do.

Alex: And if you do end up taking one of these actions that we recommend, can you do us a favor and tell us about it? We would love to hear from you about what you did and what it felt like. So if you do something, record a short voice memo on your phone about what you did and how it felt, and send it to us at howtosaveaplanet@spotify.com, and maybe we will use that voicemail in an upcoming episode. Okay, that's our show for today, except of course for the credits.

Ayana: Oh, credits. Yes. How to Save a Planet is a Spotify original podcast and a Gimlet production. It's hosted by me, Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson.

Alex: And me, Alex Blumberg. You can follow us @how2saveaplanet—with the number two—on Twitter and Instagram, and email us at how2saveaplanet@spotify.com, also with the number two. Longtime listeners may know that we used to have the "to," we got the "2" now.

Ayana: Oh, my gosh. Both emails work.

Alex: Both emails work. However you want to spell it, it'll come to us. howtosaveaplanet@spotify.com.

Ayana: How to Save a Planet is reported and produced by Anna Ladd, Kendra Pierre-Louis, Rachel Waldholz and Felix Poon. Our senior producer is Lauren Silverman. Our editor is Caitlin Kenney.

Alex: Sound design, mixing and original music by Emma Munger, Bobby Lord and Billy Livey. Our fact checker this episode is Claudia Geib. Also we need to shout out the Planet Money team. Planet Money is a great podcast, you can listen wherever you get your podcasts. Definitely go check it out. If you want to get in touch with Planet Money, you can email them: planetmoney@npr.org, or find them on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram @planetmoney.

Alex: The Planet Money episode was produced by Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi. Bryant Urstadt edits the show. Alex Goldmark is the supervising producer, and Sarah Gonzalez, again was the co-host for that episode. Thanks again to NPR for agreeing to that collaboration. It was really fun.

Ayana: And special thanks to Avispa Mahapatra, who works at EIA, the Environmental Investigations Agency.

Alex: And also to my friend Shane Dubow, who was the one who told us to ask Tim about that crazy story of buying refrigerant from the nude man. Thanks, little buddy. [laughs] That’s our pet name for each other.

Ayana: On that note, thanks for listening. We’ll see you next week.

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