There’s a new hybrid in town, except this one doesn’t drive. It’s a vending machine that chills soft drinks, and may in turn cool the planet.

The kingpin of soda, the Coca-Cola Co., is changing the face, and footprint, of the refrigeration industry by replacing its conventional fleet of vending machines with a climate-friendly model. The reason is most vending machines rely on a type of refrigerant known as hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), a chemical hodgepodge that despite its incredible power to cool the air can also be 1,430 times more harmful to the climate than global warming’s main culprit, carbon dioxide (CO2).

Paradoxically, Coca-Cola’s new refrigerant of choice is CO2.

“We talk about fighting fire with fire,” said Bryan Jacob, director of energy and climate protection for Coke, who says CO2 is nonflammable, nontoxic, comparatively inexpensive and readily available. “In the right application, CO2 can be a solution to climate change.”

Around the time of the new millennium, academic research emerged on how HFCs affect global warming. Yet, it took the publication of the Velders Report in 2009, predicting a dramatic rise in HFC use due to steady growth in the refrigeration industry, for HFCs to join the list of other infamous greenhouse gases — CO2, methane and nitrous oxide. The report’s silver lining is its mention of natural alternatives, including CO2, ammonia, and hydrocarbons (propane and isobutene).

“The proof that natural refrigerants work is our grandparents had refrigerators charged with ammonia, propane and carbon dioxide,” says Kert Davies, director of research for Greenpeace, which has been promoting natural refrigeration technology since 1992 as an alternative to methods that harm the ozone layer and climate systems. Natural refrigerants have been successfully used abroad for decades.

“We’re working with huge companies that are all working on solid alternatives to HFCs,” says Davies, naming Coca-Cola, Unilever and Pepsi-Co. “Coke prefers compressed carbon dioxide, although they also utilize hydrocarbons.”

Like most refrigerants, CO2 works by removing heat from the air. As it evaporates it absorbs the heat, chilling the air inside the machine. The main difference between CO2 and other refrigerants is that CO2 must be used at a much higher pressure, which necessitates stronger pipes.

After Coca-cola realized that the largest part of its carbon footprint — 40 percent — came from its refrigeration equipment, it began testing HFC-free technologies and rolled out its first climate-friendly machine in 2002. Today, it has about 120,000 HFC-free units in the market, preventing 630,000 tons of CO2 equivalent over their 10-year lifetime — that’s similar to saving 86 acres of trees. The company’s goal is for all new equipment to be HFC-free by 2015.

The trend is catching on.

PepsiCo installed 35 new, HFC-free vending machines in Miami just in time for the Super Bowl. These utilize hydrocarbons — think propane and butane — refrigerants already popular in Europe. Ben & Jerry's ice cream company is launching its own version of this technology at stores in the Washington, D.C., and Boston areas. Meanwhile, General Electric is seeking approval to sell home-use refrigerators in the U.S. using a hydrocarbon refrigerant.

“We expect to continue using both technologies — CO2 and hydrocarbons,” says Bryan Jacob of Coca-Cola. “We also hope new technologies will emerge with the ultimate goal being the elimination of HFCs.”

New vending machines stay cool without warming the planet
Coke, Pepsi, Ben & Jerry's and GE are phasing out the use of ozone-depleting refrigerants, turning instead to carbon dioxide and hydrocarbons.