Posted by & filed under Consumerism, Energy Systems, Processing & Food Preservation.

by Dr Samuel Alexander, co-director of the Simplicity Institute and a lecturer with the Office for Environmental Programs, University of Melbourne.

I’ve been living without a fridge for the last three months — the winter months of Melbourne, Australia. Before you send me to the asylum, however, let me tell you about this experiment which produced several interesting, and I think important, surprises, related to energy consumption and lifestyle habits. My main conclusion, which I’ll unpack below, is that living without a fridge (at least in winter) is possible with minimal inconvenience.

Let me begin by noting that the fridge is the only household appliance (other than a clock) that is on 24 hrs a day, 365 days a year. It takes energy to cool things, and it takes more energy to freeze things. The typical fridge/freezer uses about 14% of household electricity (more if your fridge/freezer is large, old or inefficient). This is a very significant portion of household electricity consumption, so in an age when energy consumption is driving climatic instability, thinking about ways to reduce energy is critically important, even if at first some ideas seem a little crazy. Since energy costs money, reducing consumption also has obvious financial benefits. Those were my primary motivations for my experiment living without a fridge. I also felt that the fridge is probably the last appliance people (including me) would normally give up, so I was interested in the question of what life would be like without one. Now I know that life goes on more or less as usual.

But to make haste to my experiment. On the first day of winter my household switched the fridge off and, as I write, it is still off. You will see below that I set up a cool box out the window of the room off our kitchen, on the shady, south side of the house. I packed earth and sand around the cool box in order to store the cooler night temperatures, and the cool box helped keep out the warmer day temperatures. That’s my theory at least. I’m not claiming this is the best system for a non-electric fridge, but it worked perfectly well for me, and it was made using things I had lying around the house. (There is a different system that uses pot-in-pot that you might like to read about here and which I intend to experiment with one day.) I also put a polystyrene box over this fridge on warmer days, as extra insulation, but not sure whether that did much.

Since the cool box is small, we had to be very selective about what we kept in this new fridge. If you had a larger cool box, obviously more could be kept in it. The first lesson from this experiment was that about half of what we normally kept in the fridge doesn’t need to be in the fridge — things such as vegetables, butter, chilli sauces, jams, chutneys, curry pastes, etc. The things we did end up keeping in the fridge included milk, yogurt, cheese, yeast (for bread making), and leftovers. Our grandparents knew this was possible, but in recent times the cultural tendency has been to refrigerate many things that don’t always need refrigeration.

I’m a vegetarian so storing meat wasn’t an issue for me, and on the occasions when others in my household ate meat (about once a week), it was purchased on the day and eaten that night. Living without a fridge is possible, but you still have to take these types of precautions so as not to create health risks. As for milk, I purchased one litre of milk approximately every two days, and during the experiment we never had to throw out a single drop. I did have to go to the shops to buy milk more regularly, however, because usually we’d buy and store around four litres at a time, twice a week. But this minor lifestyle change turned out to be for the good, as it gave this rather computer-bound academic another reason to go for a short walk or a bike ride each day or two. What at first I thought would be an inconvenience, turned out to have this silver lining; indeed, it was more silver lining than cloud.

Another interesting consequence of this experiment was that food waste actually went down, not up, which surprised me. We throw very little food away anyway, but that ‘very little’ (which goes to the chickens or compost) essentially went down to ‘nothing’. Poor chickens. Given that we knew we couldn’t store food for very long, we carefully planned meals for the week (more than usual) and purchased accordingly, and this method (which is sensible anyway) minimised waste almost to nothing. Sourcing most of our vegetables from the back garden made this easier, but this is not a requirement for living without a fridge, as vegetables last surprisingly well outside of the fridge.

As I enter my fourth month without a fridge, I sense that the time is coming when I must turn the fridge back on. As spring weather warms up (its predicted to hit 25°C tomorrow), my outside, non-electric fridge will stop working as effectively. When food or milk starts to waste before consumption, that will defeat the purpose of the experiment, and the fridge will be turned back on. Next winter, however, I know the fridge can be switched off again. But don’t think this is a big deal. The last few months without a fridge have honestly passed without any hardship at all — making the fridge an unnecessary energy expense during cold periods. In temperatures typical of a Melbourne winter — which is all year round in many climates — a fridge is totally unnecessary.

This leads me to a final point. When I first thought of living without a fridge, I — like you, perhaps? — thought that it would be more or less impossible; a terrible hardship; a terrible inconvenience. But now, by experience, I can state that it is not. I find this is interesting. How many other things could we do without and cope just fine — things we currently consider necessities? How much energy and money could we save? How much superfluous consumption could we avoid? If something as ‘necessary’ as a fridge turned out to be unnecessary, then it suggests the scope of savings could be vast, benefiting both people and planet. Imagine if everyone turned off the fridge for three or four of the coldest months of the year: we’d reduce our electricity consumption by around 14% for that period, perhaps more. In an age of worrying climatic instability, this is a not insignificant reduction, and it doesn’t require any fancy new technology. It is essentially a ‘free’ saving. Of course, it would take a culture-shift of extraordinary proportions for this to happen, but my point has been that people seem to think it would be a much bigger deal than it actually is.

I believe that this message generally applies across the board: people in affluent societies could live very well while radically reducing consumption and radically changing their lifestyles toward much ‘simpler’ ways. This is very good news, because all the evidence suggests that true sustainability (as opposed to greenwash) implies cultures based on simple living and a post-growth macroeconomics of sufficiency. Many think that this transition would be too hard, but this fridge experiment, modest though it is, suggests that even radical changes can be easily accommodated with a little creativity and an adventurous spirit.

As my old friend Henry Thoreau once said:

What old people say you cannot do, you try and find that you can. Old deeds for old people, and new deeds for new.

~~~~~

For my experiments with other alternative technologies, see my deindustrial washing machine, my solar oven, and my solar shower.

12 Responses to “Living Without a Fridge”

  1. Craig Mackintosh PRI Editor

    Here in central Europe, most homes (older ones at least) have a small room – I guess you’d call a pantry – which is on the north (shady) side of the building, off the kitchen, where food is stored. We leave the window open during winter months, and the room stays as cold as a refrigerator. It works well for about six months of the year in this cold temperate climate.

    Unfortunately newer buildings are being built without consideration of energy limits or climate change, so they’re not building them with these rooms in many cases.

    Reply
  2. Kama Burwell

    Our family lived without a fridge for 9 years in Taranaki, NZ. We used the “cool box” that our 1940’s house had (a cupboard built with mesh walls on the outside wall of the kitchen, on the south-east side of the house). Having no fridge changed how we ate only a little: during the summer the only cheese we could buy was parmesan cheese. At that time we didn’t use milk, so no problems there.

    When we recently moved to a different, much warmer house without a cool box, we found that we needed a fridge again. But one day we hope to build a cool box or something similar, and be rid of the noisy fridge again.

    Living without a fridge is not so strange, our neighbours currently have no fridge.

    Reply
  3. Dean Driscoll

    When I first came to live in Blackheath in the Blue Mountains in 1990, I first lived in a share household that had no fridge. The house, badly designed and not insulated was like a fridge and even with a fire going in the living room, the kitchen would not warm up. Marvelous, I thought, no need for a fridge up here in Blackheath. Of course Spring came along and that changed but I was impressed by that first winter without a fridge. More experiments like the authors should be carried out. Of course the transition will come with the ongoing decline of fossil fuels but of course it is all about getting smart before that. Holmgren, has a some what famous and successful cool cupboard set up at his place. A design to be copied from what I hear.

    Reply
  4. Tiago Simões

    A couple of relatives have been living without a fridge in Alentejo (southern Portugal, really hot summers) for the past three years. When I visited them in their first summer I was amazed at the way they stored butter: they opened a packet, stuck the block of butter to the bottom of a plastic box, and covered it with water (maybe 1cm over the top). No oxygen, no spoilage! And butter doesn’t dissolve in water, so it always remained stuck to the bottom in a single block! And since it was warmish (being at room temperature), it was really soft and easy to spread! Genious! :D

    Reply
  5. Chris McLeod

    Hi Samuel,

    Well done on the experiment. It is amazing how much of our food stuffs don’t actually require refrigeration and how culturally disposed to the idea we have become that everything must be refrigerated.

    Not to freak you out, but I owner built my house based on the concept of an esky (cool box). I’m only short train ride north of you, but if you are ever in the area, feel free to say hello and check out the place.

    Chris

    Reply
  6. Abrahim

    Most kitchen appliances can be pensioned if you adopt an 80% raw food diet most cooking is unnecessary & downright unhealthy even juicers are not necessary better to eat fruit raw and chew it than juice it !!! all i need is a rice cooker or a pressure cooker for my porridges plus some means of cooking my coffee. no other cooking necessary.

    Reply
  7. Jaffasoft

    I’ve gone that long living without a fridge/freezer that I cant remember. I found it interesting that fruit and veg just outside in the daylight keep for a long time. I find operating a kitchen outside in the daylight where everything gets sun, rain all weather on it is good. In fact it seems right and the way it should be!

    Reply
  8. ms

    Hello everyone.. wow I have to say… very informative I am learning a lot. Basically I just got annoyed with my fridge turning on every 10 minutes.. and started questioning why do I have such a hugh fridge for myself.. half empty and wasting energy than I started doing sum search living with out a fridge… its amazing and haven’t even thought about how our grandparents lived before us not having a fridge.. Now I am comtemplating to change my hugh fridge and learn to “live” with out. Will be interesting experiement for me for sure.. Thank you for all this interesting information…

    Reply
  9. Rosemary

    Thanks for this useful insight into how you’ve managed, and to your commenters. I’m also in Melbourne and turned off the fridge in May. I don’t eat any meat or dairy, so all I was keeping chilled, really, was a bottle of wine and a container of soy milk, along with a whole lot of condiments that don’t need refrigeration. I tried the outside pot in a pot fridge but it and it ended up being a home to slugs. Now, I shop every second day or so for fresh fruit and veggies and am buying more tinned and dried foods. I’ve just given up on having any sort of soy or almond milk in tea/coffee because it’s the only remaining refrigeration issue and I figure I can do without (if I used dairy, I reckon I could get by on powdered milk). The best thing is not having to listen to the fridge monster turning itself on and off throughout the day and night!

    Reply

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