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.
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 sustainablog.org.
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.
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