NGOs are known for getting on the case of big corporations, but it's not everyday that they get their way. At the Sydney Olympics, Greenpace came down hard on Coca Cola for its vending machines, which keep its drinks cool from Mumbai to Missouri. Greenpeace saw giant refrigerators that relied on HFCs -- greenhouse gases which can be 11,700 times more harmful than carbon dioxide (CO2) -- and used excessive, often unnecessary amounts of energy. Coke saw a great opportunity to cut its biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions. Before long, the company and the NGO sat down together to develop a solution.
Coca-Cola's new eKOfresh coolers combine HFC-free insulation and refrigerants with an energy-saving system that improves energy-efficiency by up to 35% over a conventional soda machine. Coke had introduced versions of the machine at the Athens Olympic Games in 2004 and again at the Winter Games in Torino, but at last month's Beijing Games the company brought the unit -- 5,600 of them -- to every Olympic venue. Compared with standard coolers and vending machines, the coolers emit approximately 4,000 fewer metric tons of greenhouse gases (GHGs), which the company says is like "taking more than 19,000 cars off the road for two weeks."
Given China's growing number of cars, along with other pollution sources -- and Coke's growing market share in China , bolstered by its offer this week to buy Huiyuan, the country's largest juice maker -- the machines couldn't come at a better time for the environment.How it happened
Refrigerators used to rely on CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) for cooling -- until it was discovered they were boring a hole in the ozone layer. Enter HFCs, or hydrofluorocarbons, which don't hurt the ozone layer but do cause global warming -- at up to 11,700 times the rate of CO2.
Greenpeace suggested a solution: Greenfreeze. Using an old factory in China, an appeal to manufacturers to preorder new units, expertise and elbow grease, the group helped bring fridges with Greenfreeze technology to market by the late 1990s. Today there are over 100 million Greenfreeze refrigerators in the world, produced by all the major European, Chinese, Japanese and Indian manufacturers. It is now available in most major markets with the exception of North America.
Still, large commercial users continued to use HFC refrigeration, including Unilever, Coke and McDonalds. Since all companies were Olympic sponsors, Greenpeace used the Sydney Games to pressure them to live up to the IOC's green guidelines. All companies eventually caved, but none like Coke.
"Instead of taking an adversarial approach to the relationship, we both wanted to find more productive ways of moving forward," says Coke spokesperson Petro Kacur of the company's work with Greenpeace. "That's been the case with how we worked with Greenpeace on this project and why we're showing this here." The biggest environmental legacy of the Olympics he said would be "changing people's minds, people's attitudes, helping them to recognize new partnerships for sustainability."
"This ... is a great example of how a business can work with other stakeholders to reduce greenhouse gas emissions," said Lo Sze Ping, Campaign Director of Greenpeace China. "We hope Coca-Cola's efforts can accelerate industry-wide actions to combat climate change."
CO2 better than HFC
Instead of HFC, the machines use CO2, which in this case they estimate to be 1,300 times less potent a greenhouse gas than HFC (over a certain interval of time, the measurement is also known as GWP, or global warming potential). Meanwhile, the energy-saving Energy Management System (EMS) detects when the machine is used most, or when its door is most frequently opened, and adjusts its energy use accordingly. If, say, the machine were located near a college dorm, its door might be opened often between the hours of 8 pm and 2 am. The system would know to keep the drinks cooler during that time -- to compensate for energy lost when the door is opened -- than during other times.
In addition to the 5,600 machines in China, which will be deployed around Beijing after the Paralympic Games, Coke has already placed about 7,500 eKOfresh coolers elsewhere, and plans to expand its worldwide number of coolers and vending machines running on CO2 to more than 100,000 over the next three years.
Within the past year, Coca-Cola, which is spending $40 million to research next generation refrigeration technologies, says it has placed more than one million EMS units around the world.
What happens to all those bottles once they come out of the machines is another issue (although Coke is trying to figure that one out too).
Previously on Treehugger:
On Coca-Cola's sustainability efforts
On Greenpeace's actions
On the use of HFCs
On the "green" Olympics