From ditching free plastic carrier bags to creating environmentally friendly stores, retailers are making efforts to improve their green credentials. One problem they still face is the cooling gases in supermarket refrigeration.

According to the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), a campaigning group, as much as a third of the carbon footprint of most supermarkets comes from this source.

The gases are hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, which can contribute to global warming if they leak into the environment. In the 1990s, these gases replaced chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, amid concerns about CFCs harmful impact on the ozone layer.

Mike Barry, head of sustainable business at Marks and Spencer, says that, while HCFs are not bad for the ozone layer, they are pretty bad for global warming. “The most frequently used HFCs contribute to global warming about 3,500 times more than carbon dioxide.”

The EIA’s first Chilling Facts survey, carried out in summer 2008, found no supermarket had more than four stores using HFC-free alternatives, a level the EIA described as “totally inadequate”.

The second survey, the results of which were released this year, found some significant improvements. The survey found 46 stores across the UK using carbon-dioxide-based technology, up from a total of 14 last time.

“This is a great improvement, showing HFC-free refrigeration is not just viable technically but commercially too,” the EIA says.

“However, the overall percentage of UK supermarkets using this technology is still less than 2 per cent, so the supermarkets still have a way to go in proving their commitment to the climate.”

But Bob Gordon, head of environment at the British Retail Consortium, the trade body for store groups, says that when it comes to refrigeration, the picture is complex.

Some store groups are moving to CO2-based systems, where if “you lose a bit of CO2 it’s thousands of times better”. Others have chosen propane.

Ammonia-based systems are another possibility, but Neil Sachdev, commercial director of J Sainsbury, says that Britain’s third-biggest supermarket group steered away from this option, because it did not feel comfortable having ammonia near customers.

According to the EIA, nine retailers have announced measures to reduce their use of HFCs: Marks and Spencer, Tesco, Wm Morrison, Lidl, the Co­operative Group, Aldi, Midlands Co-operative, J Sainsbury and Waitrose.

Waitrose, the grocery arm of the John Lewis partnership, is replacing an HFC-based system with propane.

Steve Isaia, head of development and engineering at Waitrose, says it plans to remove HFC-based refrigeration from its stores by 2020.

“Our view was that it was very important for us from an environmental standpoint. We thought 10 years was just about as fast as we could go. But at the same time, we didn’t want it to be any longer than that. That is really the test we have set ourselves,” he says.

Waitrose has converted seven stores to the system, and it has gone into four new supermarkets. This year, it plans to have the system in another 26 stores, through a combination of conversions and new stores. From next year, it will convert 20-25 stores a year, while the new system will go into all new supermarkets.

Waitrose has also taken the unusual step of adding a “Bakewell tart” smell to HFC gases, so they can be more easily detected, in an effort to help it halve leaks from refrigerants over the next three years.

M&S, which has set 180 environmental goals under its “Plan A” commitment, has opted for a more pragmatic approach, using CO2. It already has CO2 systems in 16 stores, and has a commitment that all refrigeration going into stores will be CO2-based.

M&S expects that by 2020, the majority of its stores will have CO2-based systems, and by 2030 it aims to eliminate HFCs from refrigeration.

As an interim step, by 2015, it plans to have at least halved the carbon footprint of its refrigeration. It aims to achieve this through halving leaks and putting a kinder form of HFC into its systems. It has put this form – with half the harmful impact of regular HFCs should they leak – into existing systems in 100 stores, and plans to roll it out to all remaining stores over the next two years.

Sainsbury also recently committed itself to targets for its refrigeration systems.

It has pledged to switch to CO2 fridges in all stores by 2030, and has earmarked the first 135 stores for conversion by 2014. From this summer, no new HFC systems will be installed.

M&S has developed a training school in CO2 refrigeration technology, and has so far trained more than 150 engineers.

According to the British Retail Consortium’s Bob Gordon: “If we are going to install these refrigeration systems across the UK, we need a team of technicians who know how to install and maintain them.”

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