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.
1. 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.
2. UPGRADE (AND DOWNSIZE)
By replacing a fridge bought in 1990 with an Energy Star–qualifi ed model, you could save enough energy to light a household for nearly four months, according to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). To fi nd 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 effi ciency. Keep in mind that units with the freezer on top perform 10 percent to 25 percent more effi ciently 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.
3. 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 fi lter 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.
4. 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 fi lling the extra space with water-fi lled containers (plus you’ll have water on hand in case of an emergency).
5. 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?,” right.) In general, leftovers should not be kept longer than three or four days.
6. 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-toone solution of white vinegar and water; for sticky spills that require gentle scouring, use baking soda and a damp sponge.
7. 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 effi cient the fan is at removing heat. Twice a year, use a vacuum cleaner with a long brush attachment to clean thoroughly around the coils.
8. 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.
9. 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.
10. 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.