DALLAS (FNS) -- With production of chlorofluorocarbon-based refrigerants set to expire by the end of next year, retailers had better start developing strong corporate policies to phase out the use of the coolants.
They also must bite the bullet and make the considerable investment required to install new or converted refrigerating and chilling equipment that uses safer coolants.
That was the message delivered by John Seaberg, vice president of engineering and construction for Shaw's Supermarkets, East Bridgewater, Mass. "The chemicals we are using as refrigerants are the fingerprints of the chemicals that are destroying the planet's ozone," Seaberg said at a presentation at the joint Food Marketing Institute-Grocery Manufacturers of America environmental affairs conference here recently.
The culprit is chlorine, which destroys atmospheric ozone. Proof of ozone destruction led to adoption of the Montreal Protocol in 1987, signed by more than 100 nations, requiring CFC production to end in 2000. As the ozone hole over the Antarctic worsened, though, the protocol was stiffened to ban production by Jan. 1, 1996.
After that date, supermarkets and the many thousands of other CFC users won't be able to buy new supplies.
"There will be no producer," Seaberg said. "And before then, it will become quite scarce and highly taxed."
Retailers may still recycle CFCs internally if they follow Environmental Protection Agency regulations. "But even so, refrigerants leak, so no one can recycle CFCs indefinitely. Most existing equipment currently doesn't work with alternate coolants, so well before equipment wears out, it will have to be replaced or converted to systems using other chemicals," Seaberg said.
"That poses a further problem because it isn't clear what coolant is best. Machinery designed for one coolant may not work with another, and other kinds of coolants, chiefly based on hydrofluorocarbons or hydrochlorofluorocarbons, cool well but are less efficient than CFCs," he added.
Unfortunately, there is no ideal replacement refrigerant yet, Seaberg claimed. With the exception of ammonia, which is toxic and flammable, other refrigerants add to the "greenhouse effect" of global warming.
"There are certain applications where ammonia should be considered, such as refrigerated warehouses and processes, but there are a lot of safety issues to be overcome for everyday supermarket usage," he said. The worst environmental offenders in common supermarket use today are CFCs such as R-12, used in older medium-temperature equipment, and R-502, for newer low- and medium-temperature machinery, he said.
To lessen the global warming impact, Seaberg said, refrigerants should have an index of 1 or lower. R-22, for example, is rated at 0.5.
Seaberg, who serves on an FMI energy and technical services committee, said supermarkets should work toward HFC coolants because they contain no chlorine. HCFCs are considered an interim solution because they still use small amounts of chlorine, although far less than CFCs.
As of 1996, the Federal Clean Air Act freezes HCFC production at 1986 levels, plus 3.1% of CFC levels used in 1989. Its production will be phased out over several decades.
Converting current equipment to use HCFCs costs about $25,000 for a 50,000-square-foot supermarket, Seaberg noted, and $35,000 per store to switch to HFC coolants.
For now, reducing CFC leakage is "the single most effective thing you can do," said Seaberg. "Our leak rates are extensive, and the more that leaks, the more damage to the atmosphere."
He said the industry leak average is about 25% yearly, but improving. Even a small CFC leak is worth fixing today because venting it into the air is now prohibited. Violators can be fined $25,000 per day. "I haven't seen anyone get hit yet, but it's out there," Seaberg remarked. Companies that use more than 50 pounds of CFCs also are required to keep records of use and leakage repair. Seaberg, whose company won an EPA Stratosphere Protection Award last year for its work in CFC phase-out, said supermarkets must have strong commitment from top management for a program to work.
He advised companies first to determine current CFC use companywide and project future coolant needs, then develop a phase-out plan that prioritizes coolant riddance in order of greatest environmental harm.
Anyone working with the coolant system must be educated on the harm of even small amounts of CFC leakage and potential penalties.
New technology possibilities should be evaluated annually, Seaberg noted. Seaberg said that the FMI energy and technical services committee would soon present detailed policy recommendations.