Image via Sainsbury's.
British supermarket chain Sainsbury’s has taken a major step towards reducing its carbon footprint by engaging in a trial of the world’s first naturally cooled refrigerated truck. The truck, which contains a refrigeration system previously utilized for deep-sea containers, will use carbon dioxide instead of synthetic hydrofluorcarbons, also known as HFCs, to chill food.
This may not seem like a big deal, but that's because many consumers aren’t aware of just how damaging current refrigeration standards are to our environment. We weave in and out of supermarket aisles without ever thinking about the systems that keep our popsicles frozen and our milk cold. But HFCs, the current standard in refrigeration and air conditioning, are a set of incredibly damaging gases that are the “fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.”
In-store refrigeration is one thing, but truck-based food transport is even more problematic. In the 2012 version of their annual supermarket refrigeration report, called “Chilling Facts,” the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) reported that, “food transport refrigeration is by its very nature leaky (all those bumps in the road don’t do the pipe work any good!) and with the growing popularity of home delivery, it is an area that needs to be addressed with utmost urgency.”
The leakiness of food transport is a source of real concern. According to Fionnuala Walravens, a senior campaigner for EIA’s Global Environment Campaign, a leak of a single kilogram of HFC-404a, a commonly used refrigerant, has the same impact on our climate as does four tons of carbon dioxide.
Walravens applauds the supermarket’s shift towards more natural sources of refrigeration. “We’re really pleased to see this trial from Sainsbury’s as the issue of moving away from HFCs in transport refrigeration has not been given enough attention,” Walravens said.
It’s worth nothing that carbon dioxide isn’t a perfect solution. While naturally present in our atmosphere, “human activities are altering the carbon cycle—both by adding more CO2 to the atmosphere and by influencing the ability of natural sinks… to remove CO2 from the atmosphere.” But, that caveat being noted, it is still a much better alternative than the highly potent HFCs current en vogue in refrigeration units.
If Sainsbury’s decides the trial on their new trucks is successful, the company expects that the project will slice its carbon footprint by 10,000 tons a year. This in addition to its already HFC-free refrigerated depots and its plan to use carbon dioxide refrigeration in 250 of its stores by next year means Sainsbury's is a leader in recognizing the damaging nature of HFCs. Hopefully, others still beholden to HFC will shortly follow.