Green supermarkets – the way of the future

Posted by Daniel Palmer on 5th June 2008

A wave of ‘green’ supermarkets is set to hit Australia as supermarkets begin to tackle alarming emission rates. The concept, which follows similar commitments by European supermarkets, primarily revolves around the improvement of refrigeration systems to lower global warming potential of refrigerants.

A $2 million Federal Government grant has been provided to the Green Cooling Council (formerly the NRTB), under the Greenhouse Gas Abatement Program, to evaluate the benefits of new technologies to industry and assist supermarkets in updating their refrigeration.

Brent Hoare, from the Green Cooling Council, is thrilled about the prospect of reducing the global warming impact of Australian supermarkets. “By shifting from HFC refrigeration the supermarkets are cutting, by one-quarter, the carbon footprint of their stores,” Mr Hoare told Australian Food News. “This is a new course for the industry.”

The current issue with supermarket refrigeration is that HFCs (Hydrofluorocarbons) are now dominant in the industry. The rapid introduction of HFC products was seen in the early 90s following the phase out of Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). CFCs were banned due to their ozone depleting capabilities and replaced by HFC and HCFC alternatives.

The HCFCs have also since been banned with a phase out orchestrated by the Montreal Protocol to be completed by 2030 (2020 in developed countries). HFCs, however, are still yet to be controlled due primarily to the fact that, despite their high global warming potential, they do not deplete the ozone layer and are within the purview of the Kyoto Protocol.

Coordination between the two treaties (Kyoto and Montreal) has been called for with the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) recommending that a phase out of HFCs take place. The success of the Montreal Protocol provides a sound framework for a successful phase out, the EIA claims.

The HFCs, effectively global warming gases, leak from refrigeration systems at a rate of 23%, according to the National Greenhouse and Energy Reporting Guidelines; and the global warming potential of the most widely used systems ranges from 1,400 to 4,500 times that of CO2 over a 100-year period. New refrigeration systems have consequently been created to deal with the problem.

The new systems, cascade and transcritical, are designed to reduce or eliminate HFC utilisation by using CO2. The difference between the two systems is that the transcritical system is run entirely on CO2 gases, whereas the cascade system still requires HFCs for their auxiliary system. Consequently, the newer transcritical systems are considered to provide the greatest improvement but cascade technology is still a “big step in the right direction,” according to Mr Hoare.

Woolworths, Australia’s largest supermarket operator, has reported that almost half of the emissions from their operations can be attributed to refrigeration and are now, along with Coles and some independents, very determined to deal with the issue.

Woolworths introduced their first ‘green’ supermarket to their customers at Rouse Hill in Sydney last September and another ‘green’ store, in Docklands, opened two weeks ago in Melbourne. The company revealed that the Docklands store serves as their blueprint for the future and they have now committed to making every new supermarket they commission into a ‘green’ store.

Michael Luscombe, CEO of Woolworths, is very proud of their commitment to improving their stores and claims the company is constantly looking for ways to limit their environmental impact. “Woolworths and Safeway are continually looking for innovative and practical ways to reduce our environmental footprint,” he said. “Our new Victoria Harbour (Docklands) store shows that sustainable development in action.”

Other innovations in the Docklands store include low-heat glass refrigeration doors, LED lighting and night blinds on upright fridge cases to improve the efficiency of refrigeration. Waste heat from their refrigeration system is used to power air conditioning and, windows around the deli counter, something quite unique, will let sunshine flood into the deli area reducing artificial lighting needs. Fluorescent lighting will also be used in store and waste and water efficiencies are to be improved.

Coles, too, have begun a roll-out of ‘green’ stores with the opening of two supermarkets in Sydney. Like Woolworths they have decided to rely on the cascade refrigeration systems.

Both of Australia’s major supermarkets have only committed to the cascade technology because the transcritical products are relatively new. Drakes Foodland, a supermarket in the Adelaide suburb of Angle Vale, is the first and only supermarket to use the transcritical technology in the southern hemisphere but Mr Hoare is hoping the success of this “revolutionary” store will lead to an uptake of transcritical technology by the major supermarkets.

The Drakes store was recognised in April at the CoolWorld Industry Awards with the Green Cooling Council receiving “refrigeration installation of the year” for their work on the innovative supermarket.

The global trendsetter, however, is UK chain Tesco’s who has adopted a policy to make all their stores HFC-free. Similarly, several large multinational companies have made pledges to phase out use of HFC gases including: Coca-Cola, Unilever, Schweppes, PepsiCo and Carlsberg. These companies are now involved in an alliance with the United Nations Environment Programme and Greenpeace to encourage other companies to make similar assurances.

The most important and exciting thing about the commitment by the supermarkets is that it has led to a renewed focus by many refrigeration producers to constantly update and improve their systems to better deal with the issue of greenhouse gas emissions. “The catalytic effect on industry has been profound,” Mr Hoare concluded. Though, there are still issues in convincing some companies to embrace alternatives as such heavy investment was put into the development of HFC technology.

To date the Federal Government has not outlined any plans to phase out the use of HFC’s in production. Mr Hoare said that the debate was currently in “a state of flux” but hopes the topic will be on the Government’s agenda either later this year or early next year. Europe has already created an F-gas regulation to spur innovation of alternative gases, with some countries within the EU, including Denmark, Sweden and Austria, creating their own stricter regulations.

Consumers also appear to be demanding that retailers improve sustainability based on a Food Marketing Institute report released last month. The study established sustainable shopping as an emerging desire of consumers by finding that 61 per cent of US consumers deem it “very important” or “somewhat important” that retailers have a recycling and sustainability program.

The green stores are consequently likely to become more prevalent, especially in the wake of the Australian Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). The ETS will place extra demands on supermarket owners to reduce emissions and offer greater incentives for retailers to invest in new refrigeration systems, according to Mr Hoare.