The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

EPA’s GreenChill Program

EPA’s GreenChill Program

Shoppers and Trends

July 24, 2011

In 2007, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) identified the supermarket industry as an area that could benefit from huge improvements in refrigerant emissions. They decided to introduce GreenChill, an EPA Partnership with food retailers designed to reduce refrigerant emissions and decrease their impact on the ozone layer and climate change.

Supermarkets with typical refrigeration systems leak, on average, 25% of their refrigerant every year. Pound for pound, the effect of these leaks is up to 3,900 times worse than that of carbon dioxide on the environment. When calculated for their effect on climate change, an average supermarket’s refrigerant leaks have a higher impact on our planet than all the electricity used by an average store in one year. 

GreenChill works to help food retailers transition to environmentally friendlier refrigerants, reduce the amount of refrigerant used, eliminate leaks, and adopt green refrigeration technologies, strategies and practices.

Within GreenChill, there are three main programs that help food retailers reduce their refrigerant emissions: The Food Retailer Corporate Emissions Reduction Program (in which companies measure their corporate wide emissions, set reduction goals, and receive recognition for achieving those reductions), The Store Certification Program for Advanced Refrigeration (in which stores are rewarded for using different technologies that prevent leaks – some even completing a total overhaul of their systems), and The Advanced Refrigeration Promotion Program (in which all options are explored, from individual store leak rate reduction to the installation of new technologies).

GreenChill started with six founding partners in 2007; today they have a total of 54 partners, including SuperValu, Whole Foods, Publix and Target, amounting to over 7,200 GreenChill-partnered stores in all 50 states. Those 7,200 stores make up over 20% of the entire supermarket industry. Keilly Witman, GreenChill Program Manager, says that this program is at once both timely and necessary.

“Supermarket customers are taking more of an interest in the social responsibility side of the business. They want to do business with companies that share their values, especially when it comes to the environment. At the same time, there are an awful lot of claims about being “green” out there, and it’s getting a little difficult for consumers to comb through all of the different messages from different companies. The EPA acts as an objective source of information for the public about supermarkets’ environmental achievements,” says Witman.

Typical supermarket refrigeration systems use large amounts of refrigerants, sometimes close to 4,000 pounds, due to the design of these systems that keep the main hub in a back room and then pump refrigerant through miles of piping to each individual display case. Unfortunately, these systems also suffer from a high leak rate (20 to 25% of the refrigerant), and they are hard to repair, as leaks are extremely hard to locate. That’s the bad news. The good news is that there are technological advances and simple changes in habits and practices at individual stores that can have a tremendous positive effect.

“I am just as happy with the small changes people make, like walking through the store with a low cost, hand-held leak detector once a month, as I am with complete store overhauls,” says Witman. “If you can get a company to make eliminating refrigerant leaks a priority, some of those small steps can lead to the biggest changes and improvements.”

Some new refrigeration technologies, like a secondary loop system, can cut the 4,000 pounds of refrigerant used down closer to 1,000 or 1,200 pounds and bring the leak rate below five percent. Compact chiller technology, another advanced system, has resulted in zero refrigerant leaks in a couple of stores in the program over the last three years. These systems can be more expensive, however, and can run up to 20% extra in the initial equipment cost.

“Although stores will save money on an ongoing basis, and cover the additional cost in savings between two and three years after installation, it’s a significant capital investment, and we realize that not everyone can do that. That’s why we concentrate on small fixes as well as big advances,” says Witman.

Witman says that they’ve accomplished a lot in the last three years, including establishing benchmarks on supermarket achievements in this area. There are specific metrics, and these measurements can be compared on a year-to-year basis. Before GreenChill, many supermarkets thought it was impossible to get their corporate leak rate below 10%. GreenChill now has five partners that have leak rates well below 10%, so these benchmarks, allowing partners to compare their progress to others in the industry as well as to their peers, have become game changers. 

But there’s still a lot of room for improvement, says Witman. GreenChill is extremely focused on recruiting more partners, getting them to make that commitment to reduce emissions, and increasing recognition to stores that achieve certification. So far, their strategies are working. 2010 marked the first year that more new advanced refrigeration systems were sold than the traditional, leaky systems. As for the future, Witman says that every advanced system sold helps to provide an ounce of much-needed prevention.

“I personally believe that there will always be room for improvement within the supermarket industry,” she adds.