Some of the climate impacts of a grocery store trip are obvious, like the fuel it takes to get there and the electricity that keeps its lights glowing, conveyor belts moving and scanners beeping. But then there are the invisible gases seeping out into the atmosphere when you reach for your ice cream of choice.

In nearly every supermarket in America, a network of pipes transports compressed refrigerants that keep perishable goods cold. Most of these chemicals are hydrofluorocarbons — greenhouse gases thousands of times more powerful than carbon dioxide — which often escape through cracks or systems that were not properly installed. Once they leak, they are destined to pollute the atmosphere.
The Biden administration now sees eliminating these chemicals from the nation’s refrigerators as low-hanging fruit in its broader effort to rein in climate pollutants. The Environmental Protection Agency issued a public call last week for companies to report production and import data on HFCs.

Under the American Innovation and Manufacturing Act, which passed in December, the EPA must phase down the production and import of these potent greenhouse gases 85 percent over the next 15 years.

“The environmental benefits here are very large, they’re very important,” said Cindy Newberg, who directs the stratospheric protection division in the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation. The new law, she added, “provides explicit authority for us to do this work, and that’s incredibly important to the agency, and for all of us.”

A new undercover investigation by an advocacy group suggests that some supermarkets are leaking climate-damaging refrigerants at an even higher rate than regulators have assumed. The industry estimates that every year supermarkets lose an average of 25 percent of their refrigerant charge — chemicals introduced in the 1990s to replace ones depleting the Earth’s ozone layer.