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Reefer boxes in the EU may undergo closer scrutiny after the European Commission urged member states to enforce an existing ban on ozone-damaging reefer containers.

The Commission published its stance on reefer legislation in the Official Journal of the EU on 22 August, following calls by stakeholders to clarify uncertainty in the regulation.

The EU’s 2009 Ozone Regulation bans the import or export of equipment relying on ozone-depleting substances.

This includes reefer containers made with insulation foam containing hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs). However, an exemption to the EU ban exists for containers that are not placed on the market permanently. It is this temporary grace period that has created the legal uncertainty.

This is the first time the EC has published its opinion on the topic. Reefer box manufacturer Maersk Container Industry (MCI) has, since 2010, asked for clarification and enforcement of the regulation (1005/2009) as well as EU incentives to phase out reefers made with HCFC141b. Also, media articles and a European Parliament question on the topic prompted action by the EC.

The EC’s opinion piece in the Official Journal doesn’t make any changes to the regulation, but it is clear that these containers should not be resold in the EU and that member states must enforce the ban and check that containers that are circulating under the temporary exemption are doing so correctly.

The opinion should also ring alarm bells for owners of HCFC-containing reefers who, under the regulation, should know exactly where their boxes are at all times and how long they have been circulating ‘temporarily’ on the EU market.

It also becomes clearer why the EC doesn’t just ban HCFC141b containers outright, and why the exemption exists in the first place.

Firstly, according to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, the continued use of HCFCs is still allowed, including in the production of intermodal containers.

This means intermodal containers used in international trade still commonly contain ozone-depleting substances, despite alternatives being available.

Supotec insulation foam technology, for example, was developed and patented by MCI in 2002. Supported by the World Wildlife Fund, it does not damage the Earth’s ozone layer.

The cost of purchasing a Supotec container is about US$50 more than buying one made using HCFC141b, not much of a difference given the average cost of a reefer box is US$10,000.

However, approximately 15% of the world’s reefer containers are made with Supotec, the rest are still made with HCFC141b. (A small number of boxes have been made using another safer alternative called Cyclopentane.)

Secondly, under international conventions, such as the Convention relating to Temporary Admission, or the Convention on Customs Treatment of Pool Containers used in International Transport, the free movement of intermodal containers should not be restricted. An outright ban on HCFC141b reefers in Europe could be seen as going against these two conventions.

Whether the publishing of the EC opinion will in practice encourage more inspections by Member States to enforce the letter of the law, remains to be seen.

For its part MCI will give it a chance, said MCI spokesperson Erik Høgh-Sørensen.

“The production of reefers with HCFC141b continues, and the EC clearly acknowledges this is an unnecessary environmental burden, which is why the EC is now asking member state authorities for action. Whether or not it will work remains to be seen.”

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