The mystery smell—a faint and not at all unpleasant yogurt-like scent—was the first sign that something was wrong in our kitchen. It took 24 hours to isolate the problem: a forgotten container of milk, turned gelatinous in its carton, in a busted refrigerator that was growing imperceptibly warmer by the day.
After a week of assessments, it was determined that our fridge had a broken compressor, and replacing it with a used compressor wasn’t guaranteed to work. As a renter, all of my fridge decisions had heretofore been made for me, and this particular model had come with the house we bought several years ago. For the first time in my life, I was on the hunt for a new fridge—and determined to find the most energy-efficient model on the market.
Fridges should last about 10 to 17 years, depending on the size and features, but there will come a point where keeping your inefficient fridge becomes an emissions liability. A fridge is the most energy-intensive appliance in the home; it stays on all the time. According to Energy Star, a fridge purchased in 2008 and used for about 10 years (close to the lifespan of my broken fridge) uses about twice the energy per year as one purchased today.
Unlike with many other major purchases, there’s no good sustainability argument for buying a fridge used. Even when factoring in the carbon footprint of producing a new fridge—the impact of procuring the raw materials, manufacturing the appliance, and transporting it to your door—that entire process, plus operating the fridge, is so much more efficient now that a new fridge is invariably a better choice than a decade-old one, environmentally speaking. New models can be pricey, but factoring in your annual energy savings as part of the purchase, plus any rebate offered by your utility company, might make you feel a little more comfortable about upgrading.
Even though I knew the energy savings alone would be significant, I was troubled by the vision of sending my too-young-to-die fridge to a landfill. I was assured the fridge would be properly dismantled, with reusable elements salvaged, refrigerants safely disposed of, and all that styrofoam and plastic carefully recycled. But surely, I thought, someone had disrupted the refrigerator industry in the last decade. Where was the new model cooled with an organic plant-based refrigerant, built from modular components to guard against its obsolescence, made out of a renewable material that wouldn’t shatter into a million tiny plastic slivers certain to be consumed by zooplankton and eventually work their way back into the salmon I put in my mouth five years from now?
I called Nicola Twilley, the journalist and podcast host who covers the intersection of food and science, from zero-gravity algae caviar to the origins of gin and tonics. She’s writing a book on refrigeration and how it’s transformed our relationship with food. And I learned that my fridge is one small part of a much bigger problem.
Eating grapes grown in Chile and ham cured in Spain means that our food spends much of its time in other fridges before it even gets to our own. About 75 to 80 percent of what we eat passes through what Twilley calls the “cold chain”—the global refrigeration network for storing, processing, transporting, and selling our food. “Even things you wouldn’t think of that you have at home, things we don’t refrigerate, will pass through the cold chain,” Twilley says. Bananas, for example, are kept at a strict 56 degrees Fahrenheit as they circumvent the planet in a race against time to prevent them from ripening—a process that is, frankly, bananas.
The amount of energy used to power the cold chain is roughly one-sixth of all global electricity usage, but it’s not just the electricity used to keep things cold that’s a concern. The chemicals used as refrigerants, including hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), release their own emissions, which are thousands of times more warming than regular carbon emissions. HFCs were meant to replace the ozone-layer-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), but it turns out HFCs are still quite bad—and now they’re being phased out in many countries as part of a 2016 global treaty.
That’s why Paul Hawken’s Project Drawdown lists “refrigerant management” as the No. 1 solution to global warming, in terms of potential impact. Like many climate problems, it’s getting worse because the habits of wealthier nations are trickling down to developing nations—in this case, as more communities gain access to the cold chain.
As I perused shiny 2020 fridge models, which are almost all shiny because they’re almost all brushed stainless steel, I realized the offerings on the American market are pretty much the same, as far as energy efficiency. The only real difference between them is size: large, extra large, or the equivalent of parking an Escalade with an icemaker in your kitchen. Which kept me wondering, do we really need to keep so much so cold?
When fridges were first introduced a century ago, there was a lot of skepticism, says Twilley. Consumers had their own methods for preserving food, like canning, and didn’t trust the idea that you could store anything perishable in a newfangled gadget for months. Now we refrigerate far more than we need to in our attempt to keep more food around longer. “A fridge is not a magical time machine,” says Twilley. “The problem is that refrigeration has really disconnected us from understanding freshness.”
At the same time, sell-by dates and warnings to refrigerate products after opening have made Americans paranoid about food going bad, even as our food keeps getting safer. (As far as food-borne illnesses go, far more Americans get sick from E. coli from unwashed produce than salmonella from eggs, which Americans refrigerate while most other countries do not.) Plus, thanks to evolving pasteurization processes and packaging innovations, there are more shelf-stable foods than ever available, including—relevant to my future purchases—some types of milk. And produce suppliers are experimenting with products like Apeel, a plant-based coating that makes fruits and vegetables last four times as long.
Moving toward a low-refrigeration diet would address another huge climate problem. “A lot of people point out that refrigeration helps prevent food waste, but a lot of food is lost because it decays before it even reaches the consumer,” Twilley says. However, the amount of food that’s lost in the developing world thanks to breaks in the cold chain pretty much equals what richer households buy, store for a while, and then throw out, she says. “It rots on the way to us or rots in the fridge.”
In other words, your giant fridge that you think is preserving your food is probably resulting in more food waste. And on Hawken’s Project Drawdown list, “reduce food waste” is No. 3.
During the two weeks I fed a family of four—and threw a party for 50—without a working fridge, I started to see how true this was.
Since we only had a cooler filled with ice to keep the basics cold, I scrapped the big weekly grocery trip and instead made more frequent trips to nearby markets on foot. I found myself shopping differently. My counters were filled with what would have been the contents of my crisper drawer, and I realized most produce tasted better if it was kept at room temperature and consumed within a day or two. Dairy and meat were harder to keep cool—but shouldn’t we be eating less of those anyway? I opted for nut butters and made more avocado toast. Having to haul bags of ice from 7-Eleven to keep my coolers cool made me appreciate my role in the cold chain.
But Twilley was right: We bought in smaller quantities, went to the store more, and wasted a lot less food.
The idea of a much smaller fridge, something that’s commonplace in kitchens anywhere but the U.S., was intriguing. This doesn't have to mean a dorm-style mini-fridge; there are many types of smaller, hyper-efficient, high-end ones. Summit makes very attractive undercounter models, including some with drawers that feel like you could do some nifty Kondo-ing for your cooking ingredients (which is why they’re used in professional kitchens). If you can’t quite commit to an undercounter model, counter-depth fridges are shallower and sometimes narrower than conventional fridges (and look much nicer, as they sit flush with your cabinets). There’s also the Smeg, the mid-sized candy-colored retro-style fridge you’ve seen on Instagram, but it’s as pricey as a full-sized fridge. Other brands, like Galanz, Kenmore, or Big Chill (made in Colorado) make more affordable retro compact lines that are also quite colorful.
With a smaller fridge, Twilley suggests making a space for a DIY root cellar (here’s one concept by designer Jihyun Ryou). Perhaps not surprisingly, a lot of fresh produce lasts longer when stored the way it was grown. Certain vegetables, like carrots, hate the dry cold of the fridge and thrive when placed vertically in cool, moist sand. If you live in a colder climate, you can even use your porch to keep food cool in the winter for short amounts of time (although be sure to keep it protected from curious animals). It’s similar to how some parts of Japan use snow to keep beef cold and even brand it as a “snow-aged” local delicacy.
As I nurtured fantasies of root vegetables buried in a tiny dark sandbox and undercounter drawers with cheeses lined up like my socks, reality set in. We had just replaced our cabinets and countertops. And not using the 36-inch-wide space we’d carved out in our kitchen for the fridge we’d inherited would have required redesigning the kitchen we’d just redesigned.
One feature I was able to trim from my new purchase was an ice dispenser, which I realized is not a necessary amenity. Icemakers and dispensers can use up to one-fifth of a fridge’s overall energy; plus, you lose a lot of interior cooling volume if you opt for a through-the-door dispenser (which also adds to your fridge’s overall price and introduces more mechanical parts that may break and need to be replaced). Instead, get fancy silicone ice cube molds and learn how to make flawless crystal-clear ice that tastes better and melts more slowly. And drink tap water.
Another realization I had after talking to my fellow refrigerator upgraders: Don’t hold onto that second fridge. Americans like to put their older models in the garage to have cold beer at the ready or handle overflow stuffing ingredients during Thanksgiving dinner prep. That’s going to pump out extra greenhouse gases—including CFCs, if your fridge is old enough—and cost you a lot of extra money.
My new fridge, which qualified for a $75 Energy Star rebate from our utility provider, will also save us about $80 dollars per year compared to the old fridge, according to Energy Star’s calculator. So if we keep this fridge a dozen or so years, it will have paid itself off. By that time, the country will be well on its way to decarbonizing the power grid. But the quest for the American status kitchen will continue to gouge out even bigger appliance-sized holes in our homes.