Earlier this spring, the New York Times ran an article that followed the lives of a few folks who had decided to cut their electricity use and carbon footprint by unplugging their fridges, and living without one. That's a fine idea, if you're okay with cycling frozen bottles of water through a cooler and waiting two hours for a room-temperature beer to cool down. If you prefer a cool brew to always be within arms' reach, you can cut the equivalent energy use (and carbon emissions) by doing a few pretty simple things.
First, though, what sorts of numbers are we dealing with? The Energy Information Administration notes that in 2001, the average unit energy consumption (UEC) for refrigerators was 1,239 kilowatt-hours (kWh); because some homes have more than one fridge, the average U.S. household consumed 1,462 kWh for refrigeration. Given that the average carbon dioxide emissions per kWh in the U.S. is 1.34 pounds, that rounds out to about 1660 pounds per fridge, and 1900 pounds per household.
That was 2001, though; buy an Energy Star fridge today, and you're likely to be dealing with numbers that are roughly half (or less!) of those above. Depending on the size of your desired fridge, modern Energy Star-qualified coolers run between about 400-600 kWh per year (and about 535 - 800 pounds of related carbon dioxide emissions, on average). The lesson here: Old fridges are really inefficient compared to their new contemporaries, and you don't have to work that hard to cut back the amount a new fridge uses. So let's take a closer look at how you can offset that usage, so you can still justify having cold beer on hand at all times.
Line dry your laundry According to the Multi-housing Laundry Association, each cycle of an electric drier uses 3.3 kWh of electricity (and emits about 4.4 pounds of carbon dioxide). The average family runs almost 400 loads of laundry each year, according to Energy Star, so, even at 350 loads per year, electricity usage jumps to about 1150 kWh per year, emitting almost 1550 pounds of carbon dioxide. Cold beer or clothes that go from wet to dry in 30 minutes? Your call.
Pump 2 fewer gallons of gas per week. Each gallon of burned gasoline creates 19.4 pounds of carbon dioxide, according to the EPA, so if you have an old fridge, the 1600 or so pounds created by its use every year is roughly equal, in carbon dioxide terms, to just under 100 gallons of gas. If you can cut down on gas consumption by about 2 gallons per week -- that's about 45 miles in a car of average fuel economy -- you'll be saving the equivalent amount of energy.
Eat fewer burgers. At his blog called Open the Future, futurist, thinker and all-around smart guy crunched the numbers to figure out the carbon footprint of a cheeseburger. I won't dig in to the nitty-gritty details here, but he found that each burger is responsible for about 10 pounds of carbon emissions (just for ease of math -- his range was 8 -13 pounds per burger, depending on a variety of factors). The average American eats three of these 10-pounders a week, which means the average family of four eats 624 every year; that equals more than three tons (about 6240 pounds) of carbon dioxide for beef, buns, cheese, etc. So, to equal the same carbon footprint as your fridge, your family of four would need to eat between 60 and 120 fewer burgers, collectively; if you're single, quitting the 3-per-week habit cold turkey (cold beef?) also equals about the same amount of carbon dioxide.
Take one less mid-range flight. Airplane travel often comes up as a way to compare various behaviors and their relative impacts. In this case, it's to further reinforce how quickly flying adds up, especially when compared to something as everyday as using the fridge. According to carbon offset provider TerraPass, one flight from New York City to St. Louis produces about the same carbon dioxide emission equivalent as your fridge for an entire year. 'Nuff said.
So, unplugging your fridge for good can save you some electricity and carbon emissions -- and if you don't mind living without one, by all means, do it! -- but if your fridge is like a member of the family, don't despair. You can keep it around (especially if it's a newer, Energy-Star model) and do a little scrimping elsewhere, and achieve similar reductions in energy and carbon dioxide emissions