As EPA phases out climate-damaging commercial refrigerants, supermarkets will need to overhaul their entire refrigeration systems

A woman shops in a grocery store in the refrigerator aisle. May 2021


EPA took steps this week to dramatically reduce the use of hydrofluorocarbons, a move that will ultimately reshape the grocery industry.

This week the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) took the first step in phasing down the use of hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, common refrigerants that also happen to be greenhouse gases thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide. It’s a significant step towards reducing the import and production of HFCs by 85 percent over the next decade and a half, as mandated by the American Innovation and Manufacturing Act of 2020.

“The primary takeaway from the news this week is that, hey, this is really happening,” said Mark McLinden, a chemical engineer at the National Institute of Standards and Technology who studies refrigerants. “The EPA is sort of defining how we’re going to get there.”

This is not the first time that refrigerants had to be swapped out because they’re bad for the environment. The first widely used refrigerants, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), commonly known by the brand name Freon, and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), were later found to be ozone-depleting. In 1987, the U.S. and 196 other countries agreed to phase them out as part of the Montreal Protocol, an international treaty designed to protect the ozone layer by phasing out the production of numerous substances. CFCs have been illegal in this country since 2005, and HCFCs are being phased out in advance of a complete ban by 2030.

Although HFCs are used in lots of different applications like air conditioners, supermarkets are one of the worst culprits when it comes to leaking these gases into the atmosphere.

But HFCs, the replacements for CFCs and HCFCs, proved to have downsides of their own, with Global Warming Potential (GWP) thousands of times greater than carbon dioxide. The Montreal Protocol was modified in 2016, with an amendment to mandate a roughly 80 percent reduction of CFCs by 2045. Although the U.S. has yet to ratify the Kigali Amendment, President Biden has declared an intention to do so. This week’s proposed rule from EPA sets the U.S. up to meet that goal.

Although HFCs are used in lots of different applications like air conditioners, supermarkets are one of the worst culprits when it comes to leaking these gases into the atmosphere. McLinden explained coolants generally need to be circulated around a store—to the dairy cases, the freezer aisle, etc.—which adds up to miles of piping, lots of joints, and too many opportunities for leaks to develop.

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As The Counter reported in 2019, Southeastern Grocers Inc. (the parent company of Winn Dixie, Bi-Lo, and several other supermarket chains) was slapped with an estimated $4.2 million bill as part of an agreement with the Department of Justice and EPA to address persistent coolant leaks. In that case, the coolants were of the ozone-depleting variety.

The nonprofit Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) believes it is a serious, industry-wide problem. EIA visited 45 food retailers in the Washington D.C. area in 2019, and using portable leak detectors, found refrigerant leaks in 60 percent of Walmart stores—a company that has made public pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by carefully manage refrigerant leaks and upgrading to more efficient, less-leaky systems—and 55 percent of all other companies visited.

Some supermarkets have already begun to switch over to alternatives to HFCs. As part of the EIA project Climate-Friendly Supermarkets, the nonprofit has highlighted the efforts of chains including ALDI U.S., Whole Foods, Target, and Sprouts to phase out HFCs.

“At the end of the day, it’s a bad business decision to build new stores in the United States that still use HFCs.”

It’s not necessarily simple for grocery stores to swap out HFCs. Refrigeration systems are often designed with one particular coolant in mind, and another might not work as efficiently, if it works at all. But using climate-friendly alternatives in new construction should now be a no-brainer.

“Ideally every new store that is being built from today onward should not be using HFCs and that’s not hard at all,” Avipsa Mahapatra, who works on climate at EIA, told The Counter. This makes sense from a climate perspective, but also from a business perspective. Part of the EPA rule announced this week is an allowance schedule which will limit the amount of HFCs that can be used, and allow them to be traded between companies. That could eventually get costly. “At the end of the day, it’s a bad business decision to build new stores in the United States that still use HFCs.”

Charlie Souhrada, a vice president of the North American Association of Food Equipment Manufacturers, which includes makers of commercial walk-in coolers and freezers and the like, says the rule helps iron out some of the uncertainty that arose after 2016, when some states took regulation of HFCs into their own hands—the Trump administration was largely uninvolved. The federal guidelines will smooth out that patchwork regulation—although practically speaking, Souhrada said he still needs to figure out what the rule means for the membership base.

Once alternative coolants become more widely used, the next question is, what happens to the ones currently in use? Mahapatra said the average lifespan of a commercial refrigerator is about 20 years. “We don’t want stores to have to dump out a perfectly good refrigerator before its end of life,” Mahapatra said. “Then it becomes more complicated: How do you retrofit that? How do you switch it out? What do you do at the end of life?”

These are questions that will presumably be hammered out in future EPA rule-making.

Jessica McKenzie is an independent journalist based in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has been published in The New York Times, National Geographic, Audubon Magazine, Backpacker, and Grist. She also writes a newsletter called Pinch of Dirt.