Unilever: HFC is a challenge in certain regions as it phases out harmful ice cream fridges

By Jenny Eagle

- Last updated on GMT

Unilever ice cream brands include Cornetto.
Unilever ice cream brands include Cornetto.

Related tags Ice cream Carbon dioxide

Unilever admits it is difficult to obtain hydrocarbon (HC) gases in certain regions in the quantities and quality required, as the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF) announces a second Refrigeration Resolution.

CGF is urging all consumer goods companies to phase out harmful hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) focusing on four key points; the installation of new refrigeration equipment in markets where viable, engagement with stakeholders to overcome barriers in markets where installation is not currently viable, reduction of the environmental impact of existing refrigeration systems and the development of individual targets and action plans to measure the first three points.

Wall’s, Magnum, Cornetto

Paul Polman, CEO, Unilever, which is one of the largest producers of ice cream in the world including brands Wall’s, Magnum, and Cornetto, told DairyReporter the potential for emission reductions through the use of natural refrigeration technologies is enormous.

I would encourage everyone in the industry to go further and faster in their journey to HFC-free refrigeration systems​,” he said.

Tackling climate change is critical to the success of our company and our future as an ice cream business. Our Unilever Sustainable Living Plan (launched in 2010) aims to decouple our growth from our environmental impact​.

We recognize the need to reduce future risks from increased carbon regulation and rising energy bills and have responded by minimizing the contribution of our freezers to climate change​.”

HFCs represent 1.5% of total warming potential and this is expected to increase to 6-9% of total greenhouse gases (GHG) by 2050. The announcement is seen as a vital next step to keeping the global average temperature rise to below 2°C.

CGF board of directors include John Bryant, president/CEO, Kellogg Company; Paul Bulcke CEO, Nestlé; Denise Morrison, president/CEO, Campbell Soup Company, and vice co-chair CGF and Emmanuel Faber, CEO and vice-chairman of the Board of Directors, Danone.

The Board agreed on a resolution on refrigeration in November 2010, to phase out HFC refrigerants as of 2015. In January this year it confirmed successful closure of this resolution.

Voluntary but authoritative

This second resolution is a continuation of that promise to phase out and call for the inclusion of HFCs in the Montreal Protocol. Both resolutions are voluntary but authoritative (non-binding in a legal sense). 

Polman added its HFC action plan includes; developing new technologies to lower the GHG impact, such as climate-friendly HC refrigerants and advocating for regulatory change so new, greener technologies can be introduced in certain markets.

We first started to pioneer the use of hydrocarbon (HC) refrigerants in our ice cream cabinets in 2004​,” he said.

Since then, we have been driving a strategic agenda to reduce the carbon and energy footprint of our cabinets worldwide, engaging customers on our progress and driving a shift in the broader industry​.

We have been working with Refrigerants Naturally (a multi-stakeholder group that we joined as a founding member) and have presented our commitment to many of our major customers over the last few years. Discussions are ongoing with Refrigerants Naturally on how to encourage major retailers to join the initiative and contribute to the pool of knowledge​.”

Polman added there have been challenges along the way.

The lack of sufficient service and maintenance infrastructure for the deployment of natural refrigerant-based equipment is a challenge in many parts of the world​,” he said.

Also in certain regions, it is difficult to obtain HC gases in the quantities and quality required​. We have been working with our suppliers, and contractors to ensure all safety aspects in design and service are incorporated in the HC implementation.

We have been replacing point-of-sale ice cream freezer cabinets with climate-friendly alternatives, using HC refrigerants, which are naturally occurring and are approximately 10% more energy efficient​.

Energy reduction of over 50%

We continue to accelerate our efforts to roll out cabinets that use climate-friendly HC refrigerants (propane and isobutene). Our newly purchased cabinets have an average energy reduction of over 30% compared to 2008 models and in 2014 we started pioneering technologies that are capable of providing an energy reduction of over 50%​.”

Ignacio Gavilan, director, sustainability, CGF, said the CGF recognizes a rapid phase down of high GWP (global warming potential) HFCs and more sustainable management of refrigeration and systems is necessary to meet the ambitious goal of holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to further pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C, as set out in the Paris Climate Agreement (COP21).

He said in 2010, when the CGF's original Refrigeration Resolution was announced, refrigeration was already playing a key role in the consumer goods industry, but the low carbon technologies to replace HFCs were unproven.

After trialing new approaches​, its members have now installed low carbon refrigeration systems in over 4,000 supermarkets, 4m ice cream and drinks chiller units worldwide and industrial plants with the majority being natural refrigerants.

Gavilan added, while the CGF acknowledges the testing of pilots and introduction of natural refrigerants has been positive, this second resolution is necessary to further drive uptake and ensure HFCs are permanently removed from operational systems globally.

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