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Energy»Supermarket fridges as polluting as their plastic bags, study claims

»Monday, February 1,2010

The switch to refrigerants that do not damage the ozone layer brought in a generation of chemicals with a greenhouse effect thousands of times stronger than CO2

Greenhouse gases used in super­market fridges and freezers pose as great a threat to the environment as plastic bags, according to a study by campaigning group the Environmental Investigation Agency.

Chemicals released by fridges account for 30% of supermarkets' direct emissions, yet only 0.5% of stores have been fitted with greener equipment, according to the report, called Chilling Facts.

The research points the finger at "ethical" grocer the Co-operative Group, which scored the lowest marks of the major grocery chains.

The EIA has faced a struggle to raise awareness of the problem. "Fridges are not sexy," said Fionnuala Walravens. "The environmental impact of supermarket refrigeration is a big issue but little understood … it is a hell of a lot bigger than free plastic bags."

The EIA is concerned about the widespread use of damaging HFC (hydrofluorocarbon) gases as coolants. Supermarkets are the biggest industrial emitters of HFCs, which were hurriedly introduced in the 1990s as a safer alternative to ozone-depleting chemicals such as CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs).

HFCs do not damage the ozone layer but their global warming potential is ­significant. One tonne of the widely used gas called R404a has a warming effect equal to 3,900 tonnes of CO2 over a 100-year period. The level of leakage of the chemicals is equivalent to 1bn car journeys to the average local super­market. The gases escape in normal use and maintenance.

There are alternatives that can be used for refrigeration. More climate-friendly chemicals have been adopted in Sweden and Demark and by major multinationals including McDonalds and Coca-Cola. But British supermarkets have been slow to make the change.

"Though some supermarkets have made a good effort over the last year, the survey results are disappointing," Walravens said.

The Co-op scored just 19 out of a possible 100 because recent store refits included old HFC-based refrigeration. According to the EIA, there was also "heavy reliance" on ozone-depleting HCFCs in its distribution centres. The company said the report was based on "dated information" and ignored recent steps to reduce leakage, which was cut by almost 30% last year.

"We are currently upgrading our entire distribution network and robustly progressing the removal of HCFCs," said a Co-op spokeswoman. "The main reason we have been rated badly is that the report falls into the trap of rewarding distant targets and not hard-won improvements in performance. The Co-op's commitment to reducing emissions is clear and, unlike some of the other retailers featured, we have openly disclosed our emissions data to the EIA."

Sainsbury's, Morrisons and Aldi all refused to share emissions data with the researchers. But even without their figures the EIA said the "reported" industry tally was the equivalent of 1.13m tonnes of CO2, suggesting the total release of climate-damaging HFCs is ­significantly higher.

Now in its second year, the survey asked supermarkets to supply details of the refrigeration used in their supply chain and stores. It found that 46 out of more than 8,300 stores used climate friendly systems, up from 14 in 2009. Asda, the UK's second largest grocer, was criticised by the EIA for reneging on previous promises, with no new HFC-free stores since the previous year's survey. The Wal-Mart owned grocer countered that the technology was "not ready" so it was concentrating on stemming leakage. Frozen food chain Iceland was also slammed for its failure to grapple with the issue.

The EIA wants the supermarkets to promise to remove HFCs by 2015 and replace them in new stores with less damaging options, such as CO2, ammonia and hydrocarbons.

Waitrose jumped from near the bottom of the league table in the 2009 survey to the top, scoring 60 out of 100, after promising to put greener systems in all new stores and major refurbishments. Tesco was second, reflecting its plans to install alternative systems in 120 stores. However, by virtue of being the country's biggest food retailer, Tesco is the biggest emitter and as yet has set no date to phase out HFCs. Sainsbury's was disappointed to rank fourth behind Marks & Spencer, arguing its work in the area was "industry-leading".

"We are in the process of switching to CO2 technology, which will be in 135 stores within four years and all new supermarkets from June," said Sainsbury's environmental affairs manager, Jack Cunningham. "We don't believe the EIA has taken into consideration the scale of our plans and the size of our estate when compared to some of our smaller competitors."

The EIA campaign is backed by sustainability consultant Julia Hailes, author of The New Green Consumer Guide. She said getting supermarkets to switch to "green" refrigeration would be "vastly more significant than cutting back on carrier bags". Supermarket HFC emissions were on a par with the ­production of 5.6bn plastic bags, ­according to EIA figures.

Amid concerns about the cost of replacing older systems and the energy efficiency of the systems being ushered in, the EIA wants the government to take the lead. Walravens said the response from supermarkets was "good" compared with the "inexcusable ­inaction" of the government. "Many organisations are looking for clear ­direction and deadlines for the ­elimination of HFCs."
Chain Reaction

How the supermarket groups scored on green refrigeration, according to the Environmental Investigation Agency

Co-op 19/100

Good Adopting HFC-free freezers and tackling leakage rates.

Bad Has recently refitted a number of its supermarkets with HFC-based fridges.

Asda 32/100

Has focused on energy savings and consistent leakage reduction.

Bad Has reneged on a previous commitment to phase out HFCs; no new HFC-free stores since last survey.

Morrisons 32/100

Good CO2-based systems installed in 21 stores.

Bad Lack of transparency in data reporting and unwilling to trial chiller doors.

Sainsbury's 38/100

Committed to phasing out HFCs by 2030 and has introduced a target of 135 HFC-free stores by 2014.

Bad Doesn't publish its own refrigerant emissions data and 25% of stores run on ozone-depleting HCFCs.

Tesco 55/100

Aims to cut leakage and introduce HFC-free refrigeration in 150 stores by 2012.

As the UK's biggest retailer, Tesco is by far the biggest HFC emitter; the roll-out of HFC-free refrigeration is contingent on further trials.

Marks & Spencer 46/100

Good Has installed CO2-based systems in 13 stores.

Bad Needs to move away from "reduced" HFC to HFC-free.

Waitrose 60/100

Will install HFC-free refrigeration in all new stores and is trying innovative ways to reduce leakage.

Bad No deadline for phasing out HFCs – only three out of 197 stores have switched to completely HFC-free technology.





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