AS Washington moves to speed up the scheduled phaseout of ozone-depleting chemicals, the question arises: Can industry meet an earlier deadline?
The answer from industry, surprisingly, is a cautious "yes."
In fact, some companies have gotten ahead of the game in finding and using substitutes for chemicals that eat away at the ozone layer that protects the earth from harmful radiation.
Northern Telecom, a Canadian electronics company, announced last month that it had eliminated the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) as solvents in its 42 facilities worldwide. AT&T, Motorola, Hughes Aircraft, and other electronics companies have also been switching to manufacturing methods that clean circuit boards without using CFCs.
The Society of the Plastics Industry has committed to phasing out CFCs in foam packaging by 1993 and in insulation by 1995.
E. I. Du Pont de Nemours & Co. has three plants producing CFC substitutes used in refrigeration and air conditioning, and two more plants scheduled to come on line by midyear.
The CFC phase-out is set for the year 2000 by international agreement. But even refrigerator manufacturers, who must redesign their products, say an earlier deadline might be feasible.
Support for advancing the timetable gathered momentum last week as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration warned that severe depletion of the ozone layer might occur over populated areas of the Northern hemisphere. In the upper atmosphere CFCs break apart, releasing chlorine atoms. Each atom can destroy thousands of ozone molecules. Following the report, the United States Senate amended its energy bill with a 96-to-0 vote calling for a faster phaseout of CFCs. On Tuesday, President Bush said t hat he would order makers of ozone-depleting chemicals to cease production by the end of 1995, with a small number of exceptions.
For refrigerator manufacturers, that deadline will "force us to make a decision on a substitute without having done as much testing as we would like," says Carol Sizer, spokeswoman for Whirlpool Corporation.
Bob Johnson, Whirlpool's director of product evaluation for refrigerators, says the company would probably opt for a substitute known as HFC134a. US carmakers are planning to use this chemical in their air conditioning units, completing the CFC phaseout by the 1996 model year. But Whirlpool is struggling to find lubricants to work with the chemical, he says.
According to Marian Stamos of the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers, replacement candidates don't appear to be as energy efficient as CFC12, yet federal regulations require energy efficiency to improve by 30 percent next year over 1990, with additional improvements likely to be required in 1998.
"We'd like to reduce the frequency of federally mandated crash programs," Mr. Johnson says. For circuit-board producers, a quicker phaseout is manageable for most big companies, while some small ones may have trouble making required capital outlays, says Theresa Pugh of the American Electronics Association.