COVID-19 has been taking up the top-spot in most newspapers for months now. In fact, the pandemic has been playing on our minds so much that the catastrophic Australian bushfires which kicked the year off, killing over a billion animals and nearly 500 people, seem a distant memory.
But the ever-present threat of the climate emergency has not gone away. The recent waves of protests in the UK and the massive forest fires now burning through chunks of the US' west coast have reignited the environmental discussion - leading us to wonder: What can commercial refrigeration do better? How can commercial fridges and freezers adapt to help to cool down a warming planet?
Let's take a closer look.
What's the potential problem with refrigeration?
Well, refrigeration units cost the planet in two main ways: there's the cost of resource-wastage which applies to all appliances, and there's the environmental cost of refrigerants which is specific to refrigeration.
First off, the wastage.
A lot goes into kitchen appliances. From the hard materials (the metals, plastic and glass) which make them up to the energy which powers the machines which make them, as well as the energy expended mining, refining, transporting and processing the raw materials before they even make it to the factory.
Then, when the fridge or freezer is all set up in its new home, there's the energy it uses to keep your food cool or frozen.
Finally, at the end of its life, there's the added energy required to break the appliance apart to dispose of it - with any un-salvaged or unsalvageable parts going to waste, too.
These are just the basic environmental costs of any old appliance.
But on top of these costs, when it comes to refrigeration units, there's the added problem of refrigerants to contend with.
A refrigerant is a liquid with a low boiling point which can turn into a gas at very low temperatures.
Refrigerants, pumped through the coils round the back of a refrigeration unit, keep the inside of your fridge or freezer cool by taking on the heat themselves, evaporating and passing that heat on through the coils to the surrounding air.
There are two main kinds of refrigerant: natural and synthetic.
Two of the main natural refrigerants are carbon dioxide (CO2) and ammonia (NH3).
Both are gases, and both come with a cost in terms of resource-usage, but CO2, a greenhouse gas, also comes with a cost to the atmosphere if it manages to escape: rising to the troposphere, carbon dioxide sticks around for a long time, reflecting infrared radiation back to the earth's surface, warming it up.
We have a way of measuring how bad different greenhouse gases are: the Global Warming Potential or GWP. The GWP of CO2 is 1.
Though that's nothing compared to synthetic refrigerants, which can be far more potent greenhouse gases if they escape.
One of the most infamous of these synthetic refrigerants, R22, has a GWP of 1,810 - that's 1,810 times more potent than Carbon Dioxide.
Thankfully R22 has now been phased out, along with many other Chloro-Fluoro-Carbons (CFCs) which were found to damage the Ozone layer in the 1990s.
But the alternative synthetic refrigerants which have replaced it, such as R404A, are not much better for the environment if they manage to escape your refrigeration unit.
Taken together, the environmental costs of resource-wastage and the risk of releasing harmful refrigerants into the atmosphere can certainly seem daunting.
But, don't lose hope. All refrigeration units are not equal. Factoring eco-friendliness into your choices and keeping those environmental costs as low as possible, will certainly help you to make a difference as we all strive to avoid climate catastrophe.
Let's look away from the gloomy facts and towards a brighter future:
What Is Being Done About It?
When it comes to resource-wastage, manufacturers are responding through a broad array of schemes to make their machines more efficient.
At the top of the list is certainly insulation. If you're shopping for an efficient fridge, freezer, or walk in cooler, be sure to pay attention to the R-value of its insulation. An R value is a measure of how well your refrigeration unit can resist heat flow, how well it can keep the cold in and the heat out.
Most refrigeration units come with insulation with an R value of 25 but the higher this number, the better the insulation and the less work your refrigeration unit will have to do to keep cold - that means the appliance will last longer and will require less energy to run.
But efficiency does not end with insulation.
We have seen high efficiency fans flood the market, with Tefcold's EC fans leading the way, keeping their coolers cool for less.
And, similarly, many manufacturers are also making the switch to LED lighting from the less efficient fluorescents, with Interlevin being a lighting pioneer.
Meanwhile, Foster, who manufacture their appliances in the UK using UK-sourced materials, not only cut out the pollution inherent in transport, their EcoPro range of refrigeration units top charts when it comes to efficiency. With each refrigeration unit fitted with their trademark +stayclear condenser which keeps their cooling mechanisms free from dirt, their units need to work less hard to keep cool, and so survive for longer.
Another competitor for the eco-crown, however, is Gram with their highly efficient cabinet coolers and CO2 refrigerant solutions. Gram's Compact range even gets a mention in the Carbon Trust's Energy Technology List.
What's more, behind and beyond these mentionable names, many are at work making manufacturing processes more environmentally friendly and making it safer to dispose of and easier to recycle more of each appliance at the end of its life - making sure that ever fewer hard materials go to waste.
As for the problem of refrigerants, governments around the world are hard at work banning those refrigerant gases which pose a risk to the atmosphere if they escape - with the EU's F gas regulations, the latest of which came into force at the beginning of 2020.
If you're interested in doing more, be sure to read up on the refrigerant used by your unit before you buy.
Whatever you do, as you choose your new commercial fridge or freezer, be sure to check your choice's environmental credentials. You may just find that, as you strive to save the world, you simultaneously shave a few pounds off of the running costs of your kitchen. Saving the planet is, after all, good for business.