Leaky Refrigerators Impede a Sustainable Planet

Automobiles and factories changed daily life in the US, by creating a mobile, more affluent society. But the rise of industrialization led to unintended environmental consequences.

Toxic pollution induced chronic health conditions and untimely deaths. During the 20th century, regulations restored safe living conditions and fostered a booming economy. In the digital age, we face a global environmental crisis which requires more than just regulations to overcome. We need big ideas to transform the modern day cold chain to ensure a future protected from the ubiquitous environmental degradation caused by harmful refrigerant leaks today.

Then and Now

In 1952, London suffered a week of dense smog as a result of heavy industrial practices with no regulations. A combination of sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide, and smoke particles hung in the air and suffocated as many as 12,000 residents. Severe pollution events in London were all too common, but after much denial about deaths related to the 1952 smog, eventually the government enacted the Clean Air Act of 1956. Coal plants adapted and discovered better methods to power the city. We do not see pollution events on the same scale often now, yet in the digital era, air quality crimes endanger our existence through accumulated greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. Though invisible to the eye, HFC, a powerful climate-warming cooling chemical, contributes to the climate crisis through refrigerator leaks. Leaky refrigerators are more difficult to detect than the smog sources of the 1950s. To improve cold chain operations, we need revolutionary ideas that comprehensively prevent the leaks.

Detection is the Direction

Cold chain, the process of transporting and storing temperature-sensitive goods, is guilty of ignoring leaky refrigerators. Managers misconceive that it is cheaper to top-up lost refrigerant on a regular basis instead of getting equipment repaired. Leak detection technology in the cold chain industry has the potential to act as the modern Clean Air Act solution by preemptively alerting managers when a leak is likely to occur so managers can seek timely maintenance rather than waiting for equipment to break. Both the Clean Air Act and leak detection technology prevent deadly emissions before they happen, but the Clean Air Act’s mandatory compliance makes for universal adoption. While detection devices, such as Bacharach’s TruPointe, exist there is little incentive for managers to invest in leak detection technology. When coupled with more stringent government regulations, refrigerant detection devices will provide the crucial data managers need to meet these standards.

Au Naturel 

Natural refrigerants also reduce the climate impacts from refrigerator leaks since they have a low-global warming potential. As a result of stricter emissions regulations and a commitment to uphold the international Kigali Amendment, Europe now uses natural coolants like carbon dioxide and ammonia in place of the climate-negative HFC refrigerants. For decades, flammable gases scared off consumers – for good reason – but with new precautionary systems, natural refrigerants are losing their taboo status and are even more efficient than current HFC refrigerants. Despite weak Federal regulations, climate advocates are urging legislators to outline the US’s adoption of natural refrigerants and follow Europe’s leadership.

In the US, California leads the regulatory charge to aggressively replace HFCs with climate friendly options. Companies also embrace the business benefits of natural refrigerants. ALDI, the German grocery chain with over 250 locations in the US, transitioned 238 of its stores to CO2-chilled refrigerators. The elite EPA GreenChill certification program celebrates ALDI’s bold climate action, which has the most GreenChill certifications of any supermarket company. The certification recognizes stores that meet specific requirements for sustainable refrigerant type, emissions, and charge. If every supermarket reduced its carbon footprint to meet GreenChill criteria, the industry could avoid 30 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent every year. That has the same yearly impact as taking 6.5 million cars – or 2% of all cars – off the road in the US. A combination of regulations and big ideas, like natural refrigerants and leak detection, will elevate the cold chain industry to perform better while reducing the current environmental costs.

The London smog crisis of 1952 catalyzed momentous industry and regulatory action because the negative health effects were undeniable. Because refrigerant leaks are invisible, the dire consequences of refrigerant emissions fly under the radar, but pose a significant risk to human health long-term. The rise of refrigerant leak detection and natural refrigerants guided by policy will produce a better, safer, and more efficient cold chain industry. While there may not be a clear catalyzing moment in this revolution, it is time to transform the cold chain industry to ensure sustainable development for all nations.

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