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Trader Joe’s Agrees to Fix Its Fridges for the Environment

The retailer just agreed to a pricey settlement with the Environmental Protection Agency

Finally...an excuse to buy more cookie butter. (Phillip Pessar (Flickr/Creative Commons))
smithsonian.com

It’s one of America’s most popular grocers, spurring listsicles, fan blogs and even its own fan club. But Trader Joe’s recently ran afoul of the U.S. Justice Department and Environmental Protection Agency over claims that its refrigerators leaked dangerous refrigerants and greenhouse gases. Now, EPA officials are reporting that they have reached a settlement with the grocer to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions nationwide—an agreement that means the company will have to fix its fridges in the name of atmospheric safety.

The settlement came about after the United States accused Trader Joe’s of violating the Clean Air Act by failing to fix refrigerator leaks, keep service records of its fridges and provide information about its compliance with federal environmental protection laws. The Clean Air Act has multiple provisions about refrigerants and regulates the use of R22, the most common hydrochlorofluorocarbon (HCFC) in use today.

The U.S. government is in the process of phasing out R22 and other HCFCs, which were developed in the 1950s as cheap, safe substitutes for CFCs, or chlorofluorocarbons, NOAA writes. Manufacturers used these compounds as coolants and propellants—think bottles of hairspray and shaving cream.

There was just one problem: CFCs deplete ozone and contribute to a growing ozone hole that caused panic and policy changes in the 1970s and 1980s. R22 was developed as a kind of “lesser evil” substitute for CFCs, but it turns out that it and other HCFCs harm the atmosphere, too. By the year 2030, the U.S. plans to phase them out completely.

Though the EPA writes that the potential human and environmental harm wreaked by Trader Joes’ emissions of ozone-depleting substances is “difficult to quantify,” its settlement terms are tough. The grocer will have to pay half a million dollars in civil penalties, spend $2 million to fix refrigerators over the next three years, and commit to compliance guidelines aimed at making its 461 stores more ozone-friendly.

“What we saw here was bad management,” John Crudin, an assistant attorney general who specializes in EPA enforcement, told The Los Angeles Times’ Del Quentin Wilber. The EPA states in a release that the settlement, which is subject to a 30-day comment period and final court approval, will reduce emissions equivalent to taking 6,500 passenger vehicles off the road or burning 33 million pounds of fuel in one year.

Reuters notes that Trader Joe’s did not admit liability, and a spokesperson did not comment. The grocer is not the only one to be smacked by the EPA over emissions of ozone-depleting substances: In 2014, Costco paid a $335,000 fine and committed to reducing its refrigerator leaks by 2017, and a year earlier Safeway paid a $600,000 penalty and agreed to a plan that would cost over $4 million.

There's no word yet if the hefty environmental settlement will cause prices to rise. But perhaps your next glass of Two-Buck Chuck will taste even better knowing that the company who sold it is doing its part for Earth’s atmosphere.

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