How far are you willing to go in your pursuit of green?
For some environmentalists, it’s become a badge of honor to live without a fridge. It might be the ultimate convenience invention of the twentieth century, but the fridge accounts for about a fifth of domestic energy consumption.
Fridge-forgoing environmentalists believe they are making significant reductions to their electricity consumption by turning the fridge off and, depending on their needs, perhaps using a combination of a small freezer and a cool box instead. Many of the anti-fridge advocates live in cold climates such as Canada and the northern U.S., so food spoilage is less of an issue and they can even store things outside in winter.
Other environmentalists disagree, pointing out that the electricity consumption is not that great if you have a new, energy-efficient model and buy your power from renewable sources rather than dirty coal-fired plants. They also point out that you might end up wasting food if you can’t keep your perishables or leftovers cold and mold and bacteria-free.
I lived without a fridge for three months when working on a volunteer project in Costa Rica in the late 1990s, so I have some concept of how this would work, even in a warm climate.
In my experience it would require a pretty different lifestyle from what most Westerners are used to and for most people, the adjustment would be too great. We ate virtually nothing but black beans and rice and store-cupboard staples like peanut butter and canned tuna (which has sustainability issues of its own but I didn’t know that at the time, except to check if it was dolphin-safe). We had to boil the black beans for a certain amount of time to kill any bacteria and we had to throw away any uneaten rice (we composted it but it’s still wasteful). We had very few fresh vegetables and the only fruit was grown locally – mainly oranges and sweet lemons.
I’m sure if you gave up your fridge, you could eat something more closely resembling your usual diet but I’m equally sure it would require changes to the way you shop and eat. Some of those changes might be positive for the environment but I’m not sure that all of them would.
Let’s take me as an example. I love to cook and I buy the bulk of my food from an organic vegetable box scheme that delivers weekly to my flat in London. If I didn’t have a fridge I would not be able to buy fresh vegetables from the box scheme because they would not last a week. There are no farmers’ markets or health food stores near my house so instead I would have to buy conventionally grown, plastic-wrapped vegetables in small quantities from the supermarket every two or three days.
Equally, I could not buy anything else that requires refrigeration such as tofu or bread (we don’t eat a lot of bread in our house and the preservative-free organic variety tends to go moldy after a few days unless I store it in the fridge) and I wouldn’t know what to do with leftovers.
That’s before I even get to the more environmentally contentious foods such as meat, dairy and eggs. So I’m not sure it would be a net gain for the environment.
I’m also curious about the electricity consumption of a freezer versus a fridge. I don’t have a stand-alone freezer and if I had to choose between the two, I would say a fridge was more useful than a freezer. I’m interested to know what you think.
Meanwhile, you could check out this very clever piece of low technology – a “fridge” that runs without electricity, using pots of wet sand. It’s a particularly elegant solution for parts of the world that don’t have electricity or have an unreliable electricity supply (there’s little worse than having your food spoil because of a black-out).
But there’s no reason it wouldn’t work anywhere in the world so if anyone fancies a little DIY experiment I’d be fascinated to know how you get on.
If you are wedded to your fridge, there are a few simple steps you can take to reduce the energy impact.
If you are running an old fridge, it’s worth upgrading to a new energy-efficient model if you can afford to do so – see this ethical shopping guide for advice. You’ll be saving money on your electricity bills so it should pay for itself. If your current fridge is very old, you may even be able to find a second-hand one with better energy ratings through services such as Craigslist or Gumtree, auction sites such as eBay or secondhand dealers.
Unless you have a very large family, don’t go for an enormous fridge. American fridges tend to be bigger than anywhere else in the world but they don’t need to be so big. The bigger the fridge the more energy it needs to keep cool.
Green your electricity – make sure the revenue from your power bills helps fund investments in renewable energy.
Look into gadgets such as the eCube, which are designed to cut the energy consumption of a fridge by insulating the heat sensor so it doesn’t work too hard when the door is opened.
Remember that your choices about what you put into the fridge have an even bigger impact on the environment than the fridge itself. Also, just because you have a fridge doesn’t mean that food will keep indefinitely – plan wisely to reduce food waste.
Image: Matt McGee