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10 Ways to Green Your Fridge

The refrigerator is the heart of a home, but it can also be a real energy sucker. Here's how to make it better for the planet (and your family).
10 Ways to Green Your Fridge

Remember as a child when your father yelled, “Close the door!” as you stood in front of the fridge, pondering what to eat? Well, he was right: The refrigerator consumes more energy than any other household appliance. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the average American fridge uses around 1,383 kilowatt hours a year, which is 14 percent of your household’s electrical needs and about $90 a year. But there are simple steps you can take to lighten your refrigerator’s impact on your wallet—and the environment. More importantly, many of these changes—some large and some small—can cut down on the chemicals and bacteria lingering in your fridge, which is healthier for everyone in the house.

DITCH THE PLASTIC
Plastic containers may be a kitchen staple, but there are some great reasons to switch to glass storage for your leftovers. Glass keeps food and beverages colder, which means less work for the fridge. Glass is an all-natural, recyclable material, while many plastics are not. And with the potential health hazards associated with leaching plastic, glass containers are a smart alternative because they can go from fridge to microwave to table without having to transfer and generate additional dirty dishes. Finally, when it comes to avoiding spoilage—which is both a waste and a health issue—glass is the clear winner. “Using transparent containers instead of opaque ones is more likely to get leftovers noticed and eaten in a timely manner,” says Kirsten Ritchie, director of sustainable design at Gensler Corporation in San Francisco.

UPGRADE (AND DOWNSIZE)
By replacing a fridge bought in 1990 with an Energy Star-qualified model, you could save enough energy to light a household for nearly four months, according to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). To find a list of Energy Star–approved models, log on to energystar.gov. When you’re out shopping, look for the yellow U.S. Energy Guide sticker, which rates models for efficiency. Keep in mind that units with the freezer on top perform 10 percent to 25 percent more efficiently than side-by-side models. Also, consider buying a smaller model that consumes less energy and discourages waste, says Alicia Silva, an interior designer at Synergy Design Studio, a Seattle-based company specializing in green building. “With a smaller fridge, you realize you can only save what you are going to eat,” she adds. When you’re ready to switch out your old fridge, call your local recycling center to ask about proper disposal.

FORGET ICE AND WATER DISPENSERS
Automatic ice makers and through-the-door ice and water dispensers increase your unit’s energy use by 14 percent to 20 percent and raise the price of a new refrigerator by $75 to $250, according to the DOE. Skip these features and keep fully stocked ice trays, and use a pitcher-style filter to keep drinking water clean and chilled. If you just can’t live without an automatic ice maker, make it the internal variety, advises Ritchie.

FILL ‘ER UP
A full refrigerator uses less energy than an empty one: The more space to cool, the harder the fridge has to work. However, Ritchie warns, “You don’t want it too full because you still need room for the chilled air to circulate and cool down new items.” If you live alone and often have bare shelves, the California Energy Commission recommends filling the extra space with water-filled containers (plus you’ll have water on hand in case of an emergency).

MIND THE (EXPIRATION) DATE
Tara Gidus, MS, RD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, warns that most people keep foods much longer than they should. “Check labels for dates and throw out anything that is past expiration,” says Gidus. Better yet, get expiration-date savvy, and use up your groceries before they have a chance to expire. A “sell-by” date tells grocers when to pull a product off store shelves; as a consumer, you have a few days past this date to use a product. A “use-by” date means exactly that: Use by that date, or toss the food. (For more guidance on the shelf life of common perishables, see “Is It Safe to Eat?”) In general, leftovers should not be kept longer than three or four days.

KEEP IT CLEAN…NATURALLY
Even the tiniest spills can lead to bacterial growth, which speeds up food spoilage—and waste. Yet conventional cleaning products introduce toxic chemicals into your food zone. Instead, Gidus suggests these simple, homemade formulas for effective natural cleaning: For a quick wipe down of shelves, use mild liquid soap or a one-to-one solution of white vinegar and water; for sticky spills that require gentle scouring, use baking soda and a damp sponge.

VACUUM THE COILS
The refrigerator coils, located both behind and underneath the fridge, are at the heart of the unit’s refrigerant system. They are also natural dust magnets: A cooling agent passes through the coils, and a fan blows across them, stirring up and attracting dust. The more dust, the less efficient the fan is at removing heat. Twice a year, use a vacuum cleaner with a long brush attachment to clean thoroughly around the coils.

CHECK THE SEALS
While you’re examining the exterior of the fridge, make sure the seals on the doors are tight. Place a dollar bill in the refrigerator door and close it. If you can easily pull out the dollar bill, the door needs to be adjusted or you may need to replace the rubber seal. Also, be sure to wipe down the seals regularly to prevent dust and grime buildup, which can interfere with the seals and, over time, lead to brittleness.

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
If your refrigerator is sitting next to the stove or a sunny window, consider moving the fridge to a different spot. For each degree above 70°F surrounding the fridge, the unit uses 2.5 percent more power to keep its contents cool. Moving a fridge out of a potentially 90°F spot could save you up to $70 a year. The best location is against a north or east wall, says Ritchie.

TAKE YOUR TEMPERATURE
The optimal temperature range in the refrigerator is 36°-38°F (in the freezer, it should be 0°F). But, for every degree below 38°F, the unit consumes 5 percent more energy. Because a built-in thermometer might not tell you the whole story, purchase a refrigerator thermometer, leave it in an easy-to-see spot, and check it periodically. Move the thermometer around in the refrigerator to determine which spots are coldest, and use this information to help guide storage decisions. For instance, spoilage-sensitive eggs generally should not be stored in the door, which tends to be a few degrees warmer than interior shelves.

IS IT SAFE TO EAT?
Here’s a list of foods commonly found in your fridge and how long to keep them. If you don’t see an expiration date on the package, use these guidelines to add one.

food: EGGS, in shell
eat within: 3-5 weeks

food: EGGS, hard boiled
eat within: 1 week

food: CREAM CHEESE
eat within: 2 weeks

food: MARGARINE
eat within: 6 months

food: BUTTER
eat within: 1-3 months

food: CHEESE, opened
eat within: 3-4 weeks

food: MILK, opened
eat within: 1 week

food: KETCHUP, opened
eat within: 6 months

food: SALAD DRESSING, opened
eat within: 3 months

food: PICKLES
eat within: 1-2 weeks

food: MAYONNAISE
eat within: 2 months

food: SALSA, opened
eat within: 1 month

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comments

Good...very good...excellent

Deborah Ali - 2013-07-03 07:28:40

Hi, I liked this article about Greening your fridge and wanted to add one new all natural product to your list. It's the DSP-30 Super green filter from FridgTech. This amazing filter which measure 6x4x1 will reduce the moisture, odors and ethylene gas in your fridge. The results are your fruits and veggies will last longer and stay fresher, the reduced moisture will make your fridge colder and use less electric. The best part these filters last 60-90 days and are 100% biodegradable.

Dan Kozan - 2012-10-26 12:27:36

We stopped using ice and water dispensers years ago before we really thought about energy usage because those tubes that the water runs through can get really yucky! Plus, if you don't use a lot of ice -- you are using stale ice. It just seemed excessive.

Denise Thornton - 2010-09-21 20:29:41

IAM VERY HAPPY TO FOUND YOU YOU HAVE A LOT OF IMPORTANT INFORMATION TO PROTECT THE ENVIROMENT AND TO BECOME HEALTHIER.THANKS

zeidy rivas - 2010-09-11 23:56:20

I just have to wonder how suggesting remodeling the apartment so that the tennants can save on energy bills would consitute positive change!

george - 2010-07-11 23:15:37

All very good info, thank you

Flo - 2009-08-19 07:45:40

@laura: Handle the glass containers carefully when frozen and you should be ok. And keep them away from very warm things (like hot water) until they're approaching room temperature, or they might crack). @Barbara: Great tip! Maybe it's obvious, but I'll point it out anyway: keep the quilt away from the coils on the back of the fridge, or it will work against its purpose. There's a great list focusing on the energy saving aspect of greening your fridge here: http://www.renewablesathome.com/energy-conservation/10-ways-to-make-your-refrigerator-use-less-energy

Anonymous - 2009-05-21 08:41:03

Add some extra insulation - I've draped a quilt over the top of the refrigerator to hold in the cold. Within a day, I noticed the refrigerator was running less. I have friends in Central America on methane, who insulated the outside of their refrigerator. - I hope to do the same, some day. I started with a quilt, and it's making a difference.

Barbara - 2009-05-12 00:00:09

I replaced all the plastic containers in my freezer with mason and other wide-mouthed jars. Haven't broken any of them yet! I am just extra careful to place the still-frozen jars gently onto the countertop. I do still have two layers of plastic bags in the freezer for each loaf of bread. Haven't figured out how to get that plastic out of my house yet! Suggestions are welcome! I do keep a track of the age of items in my freezer by marking the containers with the date that I first froze them. And I mark many items (especially supplements) in the fridge with the date the package or jar was opened, so I know how long they'll be good.

Julia - 2009-02-04 11:00:11

I freeze my leftovers in Pyrex glass containers which I buy to replace the plastic ones as they wearout. However for the airtight seal they still have plastic lids which do not have a reliable lifespan. I've tried all glass(IKEA, etc) but those are not condusive to packing lunches. Does anyone have a brand they like and recommend?

April - 2009-02-04 08:25:37

is it safe to freeze food in glass containers??? what do you recommend?

laura - 2009-02-03 16:20:11

I just want to point out that going out and replacing a refrigerator that is in good working order with an energy star appliance, though might save you on your personal energy bill, is actually very environmentally unfriendly once you think about how much energy goes into production of these large appliances, as well as what happens to that refrigerator along with coolant and insulation once you dich it...

jaimie - 2009-02-03 15:39:21

You should not just toss your plastic containers if they are still in good repair and can be used. Check the type of plastic, do not microwave them and replace with glass as they wear out. Or use them to store other household items.

Lanie - 2009-02-03 15:28:52

Having a "leftover buffet" once a week ensures that you don't forget the leftovers in the fridge (wherever they get pushed).

MamaMia - 2009-02-03 14:37:55

I fill milk and/or juice bottles 3/4 full of water and put in my freezer to take up space in that compartment, too.

Beth - 2008-07-30 07:08:22