There are those for whom recycling and composting are not nearly enough, who have reduced their annual waste to almost zero, ditched their clothes dryer or given up flying, and are ready to take the next step in exploring the frontiers of sustainable living.
For Manhattanite Josh Spodek, that has meant going without a refrigerator, which he identified as the biggest source of electrical use in his Greenwich Village apartment.
Spodek began by deciding to go packaging-free, and one small step led to another. Now, he is living virtually grid-free in a city that in many ways is the epitome of grids.
“It was a mindset shift followed by continual improvement,” Spodek says. He first unplugged the fridge for three winter months, and then the next year for around six months (from November to early spring, when food generally kept for about two days on his windowsill). Now, he's been fridge-free for over a year.
Spodek is quick to point out that he’s not against refrigeration in general, but views it as unnecessary for everyone to have running 24/7. In many parts of the world, he notes, refrigerators are a rarity.
“People in Manhattan lived without refrigeration until the mid 20th century,” he says, “so it’s clearly doable.”
Critics are quick to point out that this experiment should not be taken lightly.
“People’s lives can be at risk if certain foods go off. Certain dairy products go off very easily and quickly if you’re not careful,” says Frank Talty, founder and president of the New York-based Refrigeration Institute, which trains students to install and service refrigerators and air conditioners.
When he first unplugged his fridge, Spodek says, "I honestly wasn’t sure I could survive a week without it. I didn’t really have a plan for how I would get by without one. But I figured it wouldn’t kill me, and I could always plug it in again.”
Being a vegan without the need to refrigerate meat or dairy products certainly helps.
Skeptics -- and there are many -- point out that going without a refrigerator requires near-daily food shopping. For those with large families or who need to drive to get groceries, more frequent shopping trips could cancel out the energy savings. Not to mention, the inconvenience would be untenable for most.
Also, improvements to fridges over the years mean they typically use less power now than, say, a heating system or water heater.
“While using less energy is always laudable, most households could make more of an impact by switching to more efficient ways of heating and cooling their home, like a heat pump," says Joe Vukovich, an energy efficiency advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
While refrigerators "used to be massively inefficient in the ‘70s and ’80s, their energy efficiency has increased dramatically since then,” and continues to improve, he says. Many stores will also recycle old refrigerators, and some utility companies offer incentives for retiring older models.
Also, just using your fridge differently can make a difference, Vukovich says: Opening the door less frequently, for example, saves energy.
“I don’t want to say there’s no room for improvement, but the story of more environmentally friendly refrigerators is a massive success story,” Vukovich says.
Still, Spodek notes that refrigerators are typically on nonstop: “If everyone could live without a fridge for, say, two weeks over the course of the year, it would save an extraordinary amount of power."
And they might learn something.
Beyond the energy savings, Spodek — who works as an executive coach, teaches leadership as an adjunct professor at New York University, and blogs and podcasts about his experiences — says that going fridge-free has improved his quality of life. He buys fresh produce at farmers markets, receives boxes of produce from a farm cooperative (CSA, or community-supported agriculture), keeps a stock of dried beans and grains, and has become adept at some fermentation techniques.
He cooks with an electric pressure cooker and, very rarely, a toaster oven, powering them with a portable solar panel and battery pack. Since he lives in a city apartment, that means schlepping the panel and battery pack up (and down) 11 flights of stairs a couple of times a day to the roof of his building.
It’s an exercise he describes as “almost spiritual." When he's climbing the stairs, he says, he thinks about people around the world who live without modern amenities. "Through doing this, I’m definitely learning more about their cultures than if I just flew somewhere for a week.”
Without a refrigerator, he also has learned to cook better and use a wider variety of seasonal produce.
“In the winter, it’s just beets and carrots and potatoes and onions, plus dried beans and grains. I realized that that’s how cuisine happens. You take what you have and you make it taste good," he says. "And now I just have to eat what I buy before it goes bad, or pickle it so it lasts a bit longer.”
Other aspects of his efforts to live more sustainably: Spodek says he has not taken out the trash since 2019 (he hasn’t produced enough non-compostable, non-recyclable waste to fill it yet) and hasn’t flown since 2016 (his parents live nearby).
While it might not change the world if one person consumes a bit less power by unplugging their fridge, Spodek notes that, as with the Zero Waste movement, “What I do does matter."
"Setting an example for millions of people so that they see that this is even possible? That’s huge.”