Greenhouse gases used in supermarket fridges and freezers pose as great a threat to the environment than plastic bags, according to a study by campaign group the Environmental Investigation Agency – and 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 followed by fellow bad boys Asda and Morrisons in a league table topped by best performer Waitrose. It seems that “fridges are not sexy” but that the environmental impact of supermarket refrigeration is a big issue and “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) – these are greenhouse gases with 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 is also the fact that many supermarkets now have ‘open’ fridges with no doors or lids!
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. 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. 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. 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”.
How the supermarket groups scored on green refrigeration, according to the Environmental Investigation Agency
Marks & Spencer 46/100