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The 3 R's of Refrigeration: How to Repurpose Your Old Appliance

When it comes to household goods, the drumbeat of a sustainable lifestyle is longevity; the longer you use an item, the longer it stays out of the landfill, and the longer before a new purchase requires the use of virgin resources. However, there's one item you shouldn't try to push past its natural life cycle for the good of the planet: your refrigerator. When it comes to that most essential of all modern appliances, the best way to be eco-friendly is to stick with the tried and true three R's: reduce, reuse or recycle.

Recycle An Old Refrigerator


Reducing the energy use of your refrigerator is one of the single most effective "green" steps you can take in your home. As we all know, reducing energy demand results in reduced emissions of greenhouse gases and air pollutants, and a fridge uses a lot of energy. That food chiller is responsible for an average 13 percent of your household energy use. And that's a modern refrigerator, full of super thin, highly efficient insulation. If your fridge is clocking in at a decade or two, that figure skyrockets.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, replacing an inefficient, 20-year-old refrigerator with an Energy Star-rated appliance saves 700 kWh/year or more. For tips on picking the most energy-efficient fridge for your needs, read this article I wrote for


Once you've upgraded to an energy-sipping Energy Star refrigerator, you must decide what to do with your old one. Ideally, you want to keep that energy guzzler off the power grid. Yes, I know a second fridge in the garage sounds awfully handy, but not only does that convenience come with a hefty environmental price tag (sucking an extra 1,200 kWh/year), it will also cost you about $120 each year it chills that extra six pack and gallon or two of milk.

Of the 200 million refrigerators and freezers in the United States, the EPA estimates that over 20 million are secondary units sitting in basements or garages. Imagine if all of these were unplugged. The reduction in energy demand, ozone depletion and global climate impacts would be astounding.

But how are you going to reuse a refrigerator if you don't refrigerate things in it? Consider "up-cycling." Try one of these surprisingly useful reuses for your old fridge and its parts, all of which are less deleterious to the planet than actual refrigeration:

1. By its nature, a fridge is an excellent storage space. Unplug it, clean it out, remove the door and place it in your pantry, garage or kitchen for extra dry goods storage, dish storage or as a tool shelf. Then use that door as a wall shelf in your pantry to store the unopened versions of things that, once opened, end up in the fridge door. If you don't have a convenient place in your kitchen for a refrigerator wall shelf, it also works well as an indoor or outdoor wet bar accompaniment.

2.  The properties that make a fridge airtight also make it surprisingly watertight and dirt-resistant. Consider taking your old fridge outdoors and turning it into a pond, a root cellar or an ice-chest. It also makes an ingenious, if a bit extravagant pet shelter, as this stray Chuichui in China discovered.

3.  A particularly ingenious use for an old fridge was dreamed up by Mother Earth News staff members over 30 years ago. Read this article from the archives on repurposing your refrigerator into a solar water heater.

4.  For my own upcycling project, I took a refrigerator I found for $10 at a yard sale and turned it into a unique storage space for my son's growing gaming habit and my penchant for gadgets. The fridge will look perfectly at home in our den, without adding to the clutter, and provides much easier access to these everyday essentials than storing things in boxes or drawers. Plus, it's such fun to watch guests reach for a beverage and come away with a Wii remote.

With any up-cycling project, it's important to safely remove any and all working parts of the refrigerator and responsibly recycle them. Also be sure to either remove or secure the door to make sure children and pets don't become trapped inside and suffocate.


If up-cycling is outside of your comfort zone, then recycling is the next best thing. Older fridges probably contain ozone-depleting refrigerants, foam-blowing agents and greenhouse gas-producing substances. Proper recycling prevents these from getting into the atmosphere and limits the potential release of PCBs, mercury and used oil, while also saving landfill space and energy by recycling the plastic, glass and approximately 120 pounds of steel in your typical "vintage" fridge. This in turn reduces energy consumption by eliminating the need to produce virgin materials.

When you recycle your fridge, you need to make sure it is actually recycled and not re-sold as an inefficient, second-hand unit (which currently happens to over 40 percent of "recycled" appliances). One way to do this is to buy your new Energy Star model from a retailer that partners with the EPA's Responsible Appliance Disposal program. By taking this route, you can be sure that your old appliance will be responsibly recycled and not put back into use.

If that's not an option, check with your local utility company or waste management company. Some utility companies offer cash incentives or utility bill credits in exchange for recycling your old appliances, and many municipalities offer heavy trash pick-up and recycling programs for appliances. Just be sure to ask exactly how the appliance is recycled before letting them cart it off into the sunset.

Have you seen an ingenious use for an old fridge? If so, do share it with us in the comments section below.

Jennifer Tuohy writes about appliances and green homes for Home Depot. Jennifer focuses on providing tips to homeowners on energy consumption and recycling of appliances including washers, dryers and refrigerators. A complete selection of refrigerators, including top energy savers, can be viewed on the Home Depot website.

Photo by Jennifer Tuohy. Give an old refrigerator new life with one of these ingenious ideas for up-cycling your appliance.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

7/16/2014 11:01:55 PM

If your frig breaks, and is beyond repair, there is another life awaiting. They make great grow rooms. These ice boxes have great seals on the doors, white reflective interiors that can easily be cleaned and sterilized, and nice shelves that allow light and dripping water to pass. The interior light can be put on a timer and a simple heater element with a temp switch can be installed. Yes, you can create the perfect environment for your plants starting out in life. Great for isolating plants too. This goes good with an old broken down microwave that's converted into a seed starter. The glass door allows for quick viewing. Again, add a timer for the light. You can use the fan for cooling the inside down, via a temp switch, and for recycling the air. I have been doing this for years for myself and others. Maybe I should make a video for youtube? Nah, I'm not that good looking.

7/16/2014 5:33:55 PM

Always consider the source of any information. At the end of the article, it clearly states that the author "writes about appliances and green homes for Home Depot." So this writer works for a huge corporation that makes money selling new appliances. What else could she recommend but to take old refridgerators out of use? Another commentor asked how long it would take to repay the embedded costs of a new 'fridge in reduced energy use: sourcing the oil, manufacturing the plastics, mining the iron ore & coal, making the coke & making the steel, the coolant, whatever insulation they use, the fabrication of the refriderator - AND the transportation of all the materials and components, AND shipping the finished refidgerator to the store. That's a lot of energy! (And pollutants produced not just in generating energy.) Anyone care to calculate those costs? For those who live in more rural areas, running a 2nd 'fridge can be more energy-efficient than making a trip out to the store (as another mentioned). PLUS, a 2nd 'fridge in a garage or basement may use less energy than one in the kitchen, as those areas are already cooler! We run two old refridgerators and a freezer our electricity use (and total energy) is pretty low. This article illustrates a sad trend in MENews articles; they sound good, but end up promoting things that are not beneficial to us or the planet. (Like the article on mosquitos recommending the use of DEET! Sigh.) Maybe this is an unavoidable consequence of a publication paid for by advertisements. We're long time fan of MENews, and all the practical tips and info on living 'outside the box': saving money, reducing our burden on the planet, reducing our exposure to man-made chemicals, etc.

7/14/2014 7:58:41 PM

We use old chest freezers for feed storage. The locks are broken off so no child gets caught inside, then a concrete block sets on top to keep the mice out. Three neighbors go together and use an upright freezer as a smoker, taking turns minding the fire. I use an old upright freezer as a seed starter inside the greenhouse. Place a 100w light fixture on the bottom, or an old heating pad works, also. You can close the door all the way if it's cold, or crack it till you get the temperature you want. I set on old fridge next to where we park the cars and trucks to hold all our windshield cleaner, oil bottles, rags, etc. where they are convenient, stay dry, and the animals cannot get to them. All of these have had their locks removed, and the cooling units have safely removed and recycled. (Plus with this gone, they don't weigh so much.)

7/4/2014 4:57:15 PM

I recently saw a refrigerator online, that was placed on it's back and repurposed as an ice chest (freezer section) and outdoor patio storage (fridge section) that could be locked. I thought a cushion could have been added to the top for seating too. I've been wondering if a refrigeratord or freezerd (chest or upright) could be adapted for use as raised garden beds. Doors could be repurposed as suggested in above article, but I would store gardening tools, gloves, etc., in them and use them for planting herbs, etc., too. A chest freezer already has a drain and more drainage could be added. I would think air circulation could be achieved by placing something appropriate between walls of chest and growing medium. The appliances could be painted or wrapped with something to make them look nice in the garden. Has anyone out there done anything like this. I would really like to hear how they did it. :)

7/4/2014 4:15:04 PM

My cattle rancher neighbor made a handy SMOKER that did a terrific job.

7/4/2014 3:25:06 PM

We use an old upright freezer,laid on it's back, to store sheep and chicken feed. Keeps the rodents out and it's convenient to load and unload the feed. We put it on wheels so we can clean under it easily.

7/4/2014 1:14:00 PM

I turned 1 side by side and 2 mini refrigerators into garden beds. Just lay them on their backs and they are at a great height to work in. The doors can be placed back on them to keep seedlings protected from frost in the early spring!

7/4/2014 9:54:28 AM

i have a friend who lives in Tucson, AZ who is thinking of using old refrigerators as raised garden beds, to help keep water consumption down. has anyone done this and if so, any tips?

7/4/2014 7:59:25 AM

When replacing an existing refrigerator with a newer more efficient one, how long does it take to make up for the production energy embedded in the new one? We live in a very rural area and for the sake of everything, we try to make very few trips into town to get supplies. So having an extra refrigerator could actually have a positive energy effect for people in our situation. Actually, refrigeration theoretically lends itself well to solar power. When it's sunny and hot more solar energy is available to keep things cool. And when it is wintery and cloudy, less energy is needed to keep things cool. Also, at least in the case of the freezer, cold can be stored and used at night to keep stuff cold until the sun comes up. I'd like to see more information on the practical side of solar refrigeration...

7/4/2014 7:28:57 AM

The best thing about using an old fridge or freezer, as long as the seal is intact, is that it keeps things dry. Very good for use in the shed or carport or garage where damp can be a problem, rusting up your tools.

6/26/2014 1:30:13 AM

It is a good idea to use or old appliances that are not in working condition, but I think it will be more better that you have sold it and buy other useful stuff. For more :-