Our new Cool It! Campaign is urging Walmart to reduce HFCs (hydrofluorocarbons), potent greenhouse gases that are increasing every year, escalating the climate crisis. This harmful gas has thousands of times the warming potential of CO2 and is entirely man-made.
The refrigerant used in refrigerators and air conditioners is a major source of these emissions.
A few national supermarkets in the US are leaders in reducing HFCs (find them on Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA)’s map of Climate Friendly Supermarkets), proving that reduction can happen if companies make it a priority.
But many people do not have access to one of these stores, showing how much work there is to be done. Below are steps companies can take to begin improving refrigerant practices.
Monitor & Repair Leaks
A typical supermarket consumes 4,000 pounds of refrigerants each year. A quarter of those refrigerants leak out due to faulty systems and contribute to warming our atmosphere. And that really adds up–the EIA reports that refrigerant leaks from US supermarkets emit 45 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent every year.
A clear solution is to monitor these leaks and, when detected, repair them. But not all supermarkets have the incentive to do this basic act to reduce HFC emissions.
In 2007, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) launched the “GreenChill Partnership” to improve commercial refrigerant management. As of 2018, roughly 28 percent of US stores were participants (Walmart is not one of them).
All participants are required to test for leaks and must achieve less than a 15 percent refrigerant emissions rate to remain a part of the program. The EPA provides resources on best practices, calculators for climate impact, technology assistance, and collects annual refrigerant data from all partners.
Along with reducing these dangerous greenhouse gases, there are financial benefits to improving practices. Companies following these steps find increased appliance efficiency, and lower energy costs. Not maintaining a refrigerant system can not only lead to leaks, but to costly mechanical problems and reduced energy efficiency.
Responsible companies regularly monitor and repair leaks to reduce their emissions and eliminate the waste of other resources.
It's critical to repair leaks and use responsible disposal, but we also must eliminate the use of HFC refrigerants. There are a range of refrigerant options that are available with zero or lower global warming potential (GWP).
Greenhouse gases have different qualities, such as how long they remain in the atmosphere and how much warming they can cause. The GWP allows us to compare these different gases by measuring how much energy the emissions of 1 ton of a certain gas will absorb over a time period as compared to 1 ton of carbon dioxide (CO2). The lower the GWP number, the lower warming potential.
HFC gases have GWP levels in the thousands, but there are low GWP alternatives available.
Although the right alternative is dependent on the application, the options listed below show the suite of natural, low GWP refrigerants that can be used instead of HFCs.
This option has zero GWP, no ozone impact, high energy savings, and more affordability and efficiency than HFC refrigerants. Its toxicity requires strict safeguards, including that all pipes in a system with ammonia must be made with steel or iron to prevent corrosion. There are guidelines provided by the EPA and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to assist in preventing accidents.
Carbon Dioxide (CO2)
This may seem like an odd choice for an alternative, as CO2 is a major contributing gas to the climate crisis. However, a low amount of CO2 is needed when used as a refrigerant and it has a nearly zero GWP. CO2 refrigerant is obtained most commonly as a by-product from industrial processes.
It requires high pressure to operate, meaning there can be higher upfront investment costs to adopting the system, but CO2 is one of the more cost-effective options once up and running. Increasing demand for refrigerant alternatives is lowering costs even below HFC-based systems.
These are non-toxic options with what is considered negligible GWP. Examples of hydrocarbon refrigerants include: propane (GWP of 3), isobutene (GWP of 4), and propylene (GWP of 2). These substances are not energy intensive to produce and they are easier to recycle or dispose of responsibly than HFCs.
Hydrocarbons are flammable, but, safeguards and proper technician training can mitigate issues. These options lead to high energy efficiency, have good thermodynamic properties, and are more affordable than HFC refrigerants.
One of the world’s oldest forms of refrigerant is water. It has no toxicity and has zero global warming potential. But water cannot be used in refrigeration systems below 0 degrees Celsius, as it would freeze in the pipes. This alternative is most often used in building air conditioning systems.
Availability of Alternatives
The largest three refrigerant producers are DuPont, Honeywell, and MexiChem. All of these provide alternatives, along with other smaller manufacturers and hundreds of importable options.
Major domestic manufacturers, such as Honeywell and Dow Chemical, have urged the Trump Administration to ratify the Kigali Amendment to phase out HFC refrigerants, create more jobs, and keep the industry competitive in global markets.
But the White House has ignored bipartisan calls to ratify Kigali and instead is rolling back previous policies that are in place to reduce HFCs. So, manufactures are taking their initiative and moving forward to change their products to meet the Kigali Amendment’s requirements.
Ensure Responsible Disposal
When refrigerants need to be replaced, they must be removed by a certified technician to prevent venting into the atmosphere. The gas then needs to be securely taken to a facility to be reclaimed, where impurities will be removed for reusing the gas, or destroyed. Gas that is recovered must be stored without leakage.
The Trump Administration’s EPA is scaling back and repealing many regulations that protect communities and the environment, including refrigerant rules. In 2018, the EPA proposed new rules that would scale back certain requirements on repairing leaks and even announced its consideration to rescind certification rules for refrigerant technicians–a move that HVAC industry representatives consider concerning and potentially dangerous.
Even if the EPA put these regressive rules into place, responsible companies will commit to follow best practices to reduce their climate impacts, but some companies may take advantage of laxer regulations and cut corners.
Given the measurable environmental and financial benefits to phasing out HFCs and repairing leaks, why aren’t more supermarkets stepping up? Even though many supermarkets are part of national corporations, the refrigerant decisions are typically left up to the individual store owners or managers. However, an individual store within a chain is unlikely to make purchasing shifts or even use its budget to monitor and repair leaks, unless headquarters has made a companywide commitment.
This is why Green America is urging major supermarkets, beginning with Walmart, to phase out HFCs, set leak requirements, and commit to responsible disposal of refrigerants in all of its stores.