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How grocery store freezers are heating the planet, and the way they might change

Local weather-conscious customers could purchase native meals and attempt to minimize packaging waste, however these efforts could possibly be negated by potent greenhouse gases leaking from grocery store fridges.

Refrigerants known as hydrofluorocarbons or HFCs are broadly used to maintain meals chilly or frozen at grocery shops and through transport. (They’re additionally used for different refrigeration purposes, like ice rinks and air conditioners).

They have been initially introduced in to interchange ozone-depleting refrigerants known as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which have been banned in a landmark 1987 settlement known as the Montreal Protocol, with a view to save the Earth’s protecting ozone layer.

However HFCs are themselves highly effective greenhouse gases.

Usually, every tonne of HFCs can lure as a lot warmth within the environment as 1,400 to 4,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide over 100 years, relying on the kind of HFC.

Here is a take a look at why that is occurring, what the options are, and the way odd customers might make a distinction.

How do HFCs get from supermarkets into the environment?

Grocery store fridges aren’t like your fridge at dwelling, which comprises solely about 5 kilograms of refrigerant in a sealed unit that is unlikely to leak, says Morgan Smith, spokesperson for the North American Sustainable Refrigeration Council.

Her non-profit group has partnered with trade to assist allow the transition from HFCs to extra climate-friendly refrigerants as a result of the complexity of their methods make them vulnerable to leaking vital quantities of HFCs. 

Beneath and behind the instances of greens, dairy and frozen meals at a typical grocery store are kilometres of piping with hundreds of valves, containing actually a tonne of refrigerant. 

“It is so massive and so advanced, with so many alternative factors of connection that these methods are inherently leaky, and they also leak about 25 per cent of their refrigerant cost yearly,” mentioned Smith.

That is one thing one other non-profit group known as the Environmental Investigation Company has captured on video utilizing infrared cameras and HFC detectors in U.S. grocery shops. It additionally measured ranges of HFCs within the retailer utilizing chemical detectors.

Numbers representing refrigerant concentrations appear on digital screens of three detection meters, along with the names of the refrigerants.
Three chemical detectors present readings of HFCs at a Gristedes grocery retailer in New York throughout a survey by the Environmental Investigation Company and 350NYC in 2022. (Environmental Investigation Company)

It detected leaks at 55 per cent of the handfuls of U.S. shops the place it took measurements. On common, it discovered a single grocery store emits 875 kilos (400 kilograms) of HFCs a 12 months, equal to carbon emissions from 300 vehicles. Within the U.S. alone, it calculated grocery store HFC leaks trigger as a lot international warming as burning 22 million tonnes of coal. 

How large a deal are these emissions actually?

HFCs are such a giant drawback for local weather change that Canada and 196 different international locations have signed a global settlement, the Kigali Modification to the Montreal Protocol, to cut back HFC consumption 85 per cent by 2036, relative to 2011 to 2013.

Sheli Miller, a professor who research the environmental affect of the meals system on the College of Michigan, says emissions from refrigerants could also be comparatively small in comparison with the meals system emissions general and main classes comparable to meals waste.

“However that is additionally simply because the meals system has such a huge impact,” she mentioned. 

Alternatively, concentrating on HFCs in supermarkets could be very efficient at curbing emissions.

“You can also make pretty small adjustments and have a comparatively massive affect simply because the chemical substances themselves that we’re utilizing proper now have such massive international warming potentials,” Miller mentioned.

Whereas potent, HFCs are short-lived greenhouse gases, mentioned Miller, lasting not more than 30 years within the environment, in comparison with a whole bunch of years for CO2. Since a typical refrigeration system lasts about 30 years, selections made now about what refrigerant to make use of can have an effect on international emissions for many years.

“We have to be eager about the sources and the hubs of the place emissions are occurring. And so our grocery shops are a good way to focus on our general meals system and scale back emissions.”

WATCH | How the Environmental Investigation Company measured HFCs: 

Mission Drawdown is a U.S.-based nonprofit group centered on figuring out and supporting the best local weather options. It has constantly listed stopping refrigerant leaks and changing HFCs with extra local weather pleasant refrigerants amongst its high local weather options, able to lowering CO2 emissions by greater than 100 billion tonnes by 2050.

What can be utilized for refrigeration instead of HFCs?

The principle alternate options are known as “pure” refrigerants as a result of they’re all chemical substances present in nature. They embody:

Whereas CO2 is a greenhouse gasoline, its international warming potential is a lot decrease than that of HFCs. And propane, whereas it is a fossil gasoline, just isn’t burned when utilized in refrigeration. The truth is, all three of those chemical substances are thought-about refrigerants with ultra-low international warming potential.

How are Canadian supermarkets progressing at switching away from HFCs?

Based on Shecco, a market analysis agency centered on sustainable applied sciences, there have been 340 industrial CO2 refrigeration installations in Canada as of Might 2020. That was far fewer than Japan, with 6,500 and Europe with 29,000, and rising extra slowly than each different area on this planet listed, together with the U.S., Australia and New Zealand.

Nevertheless, Jeffrey Gingras, president of Evapco LMP, a Laval, Que.-based firm that makes CO2 refrigeration methods, mentioned he is seen an exponential development in installations previously three years, and did a file 125 installations in supermarkets, about half of them in Canada, in 2022.

The Environmental Investigation Company has been constructing a international map of refrigerants utilized in supermarkets because it launched its Local weather-Pleasant Supermarkets challenge in 2019.

Two Canadian group teams, Drawdown Toronto and Drawdown B.C., have helped coordinate submissions to the map of their areas, and have added about 250 shops to the map. (Word: I volunteered for Drawdown Toronto whereas on depart from CBC Information and added one retailer. You may learn extra about that in our What On Earth publication.)

A label inside a refrigerator shows information such as the type of refrigerant.
This can be a fridge label from the within of a grocery store fridge, displaying the kind of refrigerant used. On this case, it is an HFC known as R404A, with a world warming potential near 4,000 instances that of CO2. (Emily Chung/CBC Information)

That was sufficient for the EIA to difficulty its first ever scorecard on Canadian supermarkets final fall.

It reported on the 5 largest meals retailers in Canada: Costco, Loblaws, Metro, Sobeys and Walmart.

The perfect-performing was Sobeys, which had the very best proportion of shops utilizing ultra-low international warming potential refrigerants (9 per cent), was the one listed firm that publicly studies its refrigerant leak price (seven per cent) and has dedicated to transition to climate-friendly refrigerants for all new shops and renovation tasks beginning in 2024.

Some shops have additionally reported taking their very own actions on HFCs, together with Loblaws, which ranked third within the report and advised CBC Information that it has minimize its greenhouse gasoline emissions by 30 per cent “in a big half” due to its technique to cut back refrigerant leaks: utilizing much less refrigerant, detecting leaks early and lowering the emissions depth of the refrigerants it makes use of.

Walmart Canada, which got here fourth within the report, advised CBC Information in an e-mail that it’s putting in pure refrigerants in all new shops and through main remodels with new grocery departments, and can change all shops operating on HFC refrigerants to extra environmentally pleasant choices. It didn’t give a timeline, however mentioned its international operations are aiming for zero emissions by 2040.

The opposite corporations didn’t reply to CBC’s requests for remark.

EIA’s international map does present only a few inexperienced dots in Canada in comparison with the U.S. and Europe. Avipsa Mahapatra, the group’s local weather marketing campaign lead, mentioned which may be as a result of no Canadian grocery store chains haven’t submitted their very own knowledge, not like in different international locations, and there is not a lot info.

“I even have a hunch that Canada just isn’t very far behind,” she mentioned.

A map of North America showing red, orange and green dots representing grocery stores with different refrigerants
Bizarre customers can add native grocery shops to the Environmental Investigation Company’s map of grocery store refrigerants. (Environmental Investigation Company)

Why aren’t HFCs getting ditched quicker?

Morgan Smith of the North American Sustainable Refrigeration Council mentioned making the change to pure refrigerants is not simple. They might require totally different coaching and tools: ammonia is poisonous, propane is flammable, and CO2 operates beneath very excessive pressures.

Smith mentioned CO2 tends to be the pure refrigerant of alternative for many supermarkets as a result of it is non-toxic and its methods work quite a bit like HFC methods.The excessive pressures imply it does want totally different piping and totally different valves, so a system can take months to construct, and may’t simply be swapped out in a single day like components of the present system when it wants repairs.

It is best in case you have the house to construct a brand new system alongside whereas the outdated system remains to be operating, Smith mentioned. In any other case, you might need to close down the shop through the retrofit, which is troublesome for each clients and the shop operator.

For smaller shops, one choice is to modify to particular person fridges much like your own home fridge, with propane refrigerant in a sealed unit, Smith mentioned.

A woman pushes a shopping cart between dairy fridges and freezer cases in a supermarket.
Consultants say it is not simple to transform an present HFC refrigeration system to pure refrigerants, as they typically require totally different tools comparable to valves and piping. (CBC / Radio-Canada)

Michael Zabaneh of the Retail Council of Canada mentioned refrigerant tasks are fairly costly for supermarkets.

“They are often difficult and that is in all probability the most important barrier, the necessity to pay for increased capital prices to both improve the tools in order that it will probably deal with pure refrigerants, or purchase new tools.”

Nevertheless, he mentioned most massive grocery chains are conscious of the issues with HFCs and buyer and investor strain to cut back greenhouse gasoline emissions, and are taking motion.

The Environmental Investigation Company’s Mahapatra acknowledged that retrofitting older shops is dear and difficult. Nevertheless, she says grocery chains needs to be making all new shops use pure refrigerants.

“There isn’t a excuse for any grocery store as we speak to construct a brand new retailer that also comprises HFCs. That’s simply merely silly,” she mentioned, noting that worldwide agreements to part out HFCs will finally drive corporations to vary the methods anyway.

What’s the authorities doing about this?

The federal authorities will begin to supply carbon offset credit for tasks that minimize refrigerant emissions, together with these in supermarkets. Setting and Local weather Change Canada advised CBC Information in an e-mail that they’re going to go into impact “within the subsequent few months.” As soon as that occurs, corporations will have the ability to apply to get credit for tasks that began way back to January 1, 2017. 

Federal laws have additionally been introduced in to adjust to the Kigali Modification, the worldwide settlement on HFCs that went into impact in 2018, with discount targets beginning in 2019.

The laws will begin to ban the manufacture and import of sure tools containing HFCs with a world warming potential above a particular restrict.

Gingras mentioned the Quebec authorities did supply incentives for a time period beginning 2014 that made pure refrigerant methods aggressive with HFCs, and people did result in a widespread conversion of supermarkets within the province. Nevertheless, he hasn’t heard of something related in different provinces.

Is there a task for odd customers?

Avipsa Mahapatra says grocery retailer clients could make a distinction by including their native shops to the climate-friendly grocery store map, being extra conscious and placing strain on grocery retailer chains, particularly in terms of new supermarkets. 

“So if it is a new retailer that’s being in-built your group, it’s our job as … residents of that group, to ensure that it’s not an HFC retailer.”

Morgan Smith on the North American Sustainable Refrigeration Council additionally thinks the general public could make a distinction: “The extra individuals which can be conscious of this subject, the extra assets and assist there are to truly allow this transition.”



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