DEEPWATER, N.J. — E.I. DU PONT de Nemours & Co. is starting a program to buy back used Freon and other chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) from hundreds of thousands of customers who use the gas to chill refrigerators and air conditioning units. Du Pont's actions, which will soon be followed by another major producer, Allied-Signal Inc., has important implications for the environment. In the past, large users of CFCs such as supermarkets or office buildings have vented the gas or liquid into the atmosphere. CFCs are now known to harm the ozone layer, a section of Earth's atmosphere that screens out harmful sun rays.
Instead, Du Pont, which produces half the CFCs used in the United States, is offering to buy the used product, including that made by its competitors. In addition, Du Pont will supply the vessels to hold the used CFCs and will pay all the freight costs.
Du Pont's action is being applauded by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Washington. ``Recycling is a good idea since it helps to protect the ozone layer,'' says David Lee, an analyst with EPA's Global Change division. Mr. Lee estimates that by the year 2000 a third of all CFCs can be recycled. The US alone consumes 700 million pounds of CFCs a year.
Environmentalists, who have been critical of Du Pont in the past, are positive about the effort. Carolyn Hartmann, a staff attorney at US Public Interest Research Group, says: ``This is something environmentalists support. It will have an effect on reducing emissions.''
In Congress the reaction was positive. Rep. Fortney H. (Pete) Stark (D) of California says, ``I congratulate Du Pont for doing the right thing.''
The Du Pont effort will be the first time a major CFC manufacturer has reclaimed products used in refrigeration. Refrigeration consumes about 45 percent of all CFCs produced.
Allied-Signal Inc., based in Morristown, N.J., reclaims the CFCs used in the electronics business. It then resells the product, known as Vatron, at a less expensive price than the virgin product, known as Genesolv. A spokesman for Allied-Signal says the company is aiming at the second quarter of this year for its program, which is ``similar but not identical'' to Du Pont's.
National Refrigerants, a bulk packager, not a CFC manufacturer, began a similar reclamation program last fall for all CFCs.
Before accepting title to the used product, Du Pont will perform a lab test on the used product to determine what impurities need to be removed. If there are strong acids in the Freon, it might not be reclaimable.
Impurities, such as oil and water, will be removed by refining and Du Pont hopes to resell the remaining product as new Freon, its own brand. Since all CFCs producers are required to cut back production in the future, the reclaimed product could potentially help to fill a gap as CFCs become scarce.
It is unclear how Du Pont's customers will react to the program, since it will require more work. Instead of just venting the gas into the atmosphere, customers will have to hook up their refrigeration systems to large vessels to remove the old product.
Du Pont is hoping that customers will want to send back the used product to avoid being singled out by environmentalists. The EPA is debating whether to make recycling mandatory. It would be a hard rule to enforce, however. ``A CFC user could say he had a system failure or a line rupture and the product leaked out,'' says C. A. (Tony) McCain, program manager at the Freon products division.
Peter Wells, a vice president at National Refrigerant, says customers have generally been responsive to the recycling effort. ``Everyone had a problem and no means to deal with it,'' says Mr. Wells. National Refrigerant is now working with two appliance manufacturers to recycle the CFCs collected by service personnel. A refrigerator uses about eight ounces of CFCs.
To ensure that the used CFCs do not get mixed up with new Freon, Du Pont has painted yellow all of the containers which will be filled with old CFCs. Du Pont will test the vessels more often for leaks and damage caused by corrosion.
The processing of the used Freon does not require any new technology. However, during a tour of the Freon production facility Du Pont officials made it clear that they would test the product several times during the reclamation process. ``We think we know what we're going to get,'' said McCain. Du Pont will sell the reclaimed CFC as virgin product at the same price. However, it will let customers know it has been reclaimed.
Tax legislation passed last year penalized users of CFCs by adding $1.37 a pound to the cost. A pound of CFC currently cost about $1. The tax increases to $2.65 a pound by 1994. Reclaimed and recycled CFCs, however, are exempt from the tax. Du Pont plans to use this savings to entice current users to recycle their product. As both the tax and the price of CFCs rise, Du Pont plans to pay more to customers sending back the used product.
Representative Stark, a member of the Ways and Means Committee, says this is what he had in mind. ``We intend to use the tax code to encourage other manufacturers to reduce pollution in the same way,'' he says.
The auto industry is also beginning a recycling system. General Motors Corporation, for example, is starting to recycle the CFCs used in its air conditioners. The GM machinery does not take the CFC back to its original condition. But since the life span of an automobile air conditioning unit is not as long as refrigerator, GM does not need to meet the same quality standards as Du Pont and National Refrigerant.