Washington — Warmer weather, a widening ozone hole, and a general loss of protective ozone have prompted the makers of harmful chemicals to find suitable alternatives by the turn of the century. Although the existing chemicals are ideally suited for their use, and although no substitutes have been found that match their efficiency or durability, the industry is moving away from them.
``There's a very strong recognition on the part of the industry that new compounds are the way to go,'' says Kevin Fay, executive director at the Alliance for Responsible CFC Policy.
The chemical giant E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. is aggressively pursuing the elimination of chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) compounds 11 and 12 - the most heavily used ozone-depleting compounds - by the year 2000. Pennwalt Corporation and Allied-Signal Inc., also among the five US producers, have announced that they will also be getting out of the CFC business, though they have given no specific time.
CFCs - used as refrigerants, blowing agents for insulation, and in fast-food packages - eat away at the ozone layer, letting in harmful ultraviolet rays. CFCs contribute about 20 percent to the layer of gases that rise up into the earth's stratosphere, trapping the sun's heat and slowly raising the earth's temperature, says Stephen Anderson, an ozone specialist at the Environmental Protection Agency.
Both Du Pont's timetable and its goal of a total phase-out are far more ambitious than even an international agreement that would require only a 50 percent reduction in CFC emissions by the end of the century.
``Rather than fiddle around with a 50 percent phase-out, they're going to go the whole way,'' says James Wilbur, a chemical analyst at Smith Barney, Harris Upham & Co. Such a commitment should turn out to be a good business strategy, he says.
So far, only the United States, Mexico, and several smaller countries have formally ratified the Montreal Protocol (for Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer), not enough for it to go into effect. For that to happen, 11 nations representing at least two-thirds of world CFC consumption must approve it. Japan and the European nations are in the process of ratifying the protocol now, however, and ``it looks like it will go into effect by January of next year,'' says Joseph McGuire, vice-president of government affairs at the Air Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute.
Though not as prevalent but far more potent than CO2, the major ``greenhouse gas,'' CFCs are the easiest component of the problem to solve, says David Wirth, a lawyer at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
As recent reports have focused attention on the problems, even a relatively small move by corporations to reduce chemical pollutants is welcomed by environmentalists. Still, it will not be until after the year 2000 that the chemicals already in the atmosphere can be eliminated, Mr. McGuire says.
Major international CFC producers have been exploring alternative compounds and working to prepare their producers for the transition, as well as pooling some toxicity testing results with competitors to speed up the process.
Still, despite the unusual amount of cooperation in the industry, ``it's a very hot competitive race into the market for alternatives,'' says Katherine Forte, spokeswoman at Du Pont. As such, Du Pont is trying to open a manufacturing plant to produce commercial quantities of alternative compounds before year's end.
But this scramble to make the quickest possible transition has raised some concerns among users of CFCs, who are aware that no alternatives have been found to match the efficiency and durability of today's compounds.
If Du Pont and others cease CFC production by 2000, a variety of products already in the field will be left high and dry, McGuire says.
Though he suspects there will still be other companies willing to make CFC compounds and fill the gap, Mr. McGuire hopes the Montreal Protocol will not be toughened, going for a complete phase-out instead of the 50 percent reduction by the end of the century it calls for.
There is mounting pressure for a revision, however, both from Congress, where a bill calling for 95 percent phase-out by 1996 is pending in the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee, and from the scientific community, which reports new evidence of a direct connection between an abundance of CFCs in the atmosphere and a loss of ozone.
Some environmental groups say that without some enforced incentives, companies are not going to move fast enough.
``The demand for existing chemicals is expected to remain high in the short term, and their price is expected to go up ... but the cost of new chemicals will also be high,'' says Mr. Wirth at the Natural Resource Defense Council.
The EPA has projected that the five American CFC producers stand to gain profits of about $7 billion as a result of the protocol and subsequent supply shortages. Indeed, Du Pont's profits from the sale of CFCs in 1987 were 50 percent higher than in 1986, says Mr. Wilbur. The company has said it will use the bulk of those profits for alternative research.
The energy crisis in the early 1970s made manufacturers even more dependent on the chlorine compounds, since CFC 11 and 12 increase energy efficiency, says Marion Stamos, spokeswoman at the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers.
But that creates a problem for certain manufacturers that use CFC compounds 11 and 12 to increase efficiency so they won't violate the National Appliance Energy Conservation Act of 1987.
``Just to get to the 1990 efficiency level, they will still have to redesign about 59 percent of the 1988 models,'' Ms. Stamos says.