“Without refrigeration, modern life would be impossible!”

The fridge is a household amenity that we rarely consider removing from our lives; it is a useful appliance for storing the goods of consumerism, but it perpetuates a cold food-chain system contrary to sustainability, and its use of harsh and toxic chemicals for cooling is questionable at best. Improving the way we ship, export, and import fresh goods could have a monumental influence on the emissions created by the food we eat. Many promising, efficient technologies for the food industry are being developed, and if implemented, they would alleviate some of the environmental stress; however, they will not be available for at least another decade. Problems also arise when a technological solution is offered to replace a technological problem; these solutions only address the symptoms of climate change, but not the illness. In these next ten years and with global temperatures rising, our dependency on refrigeration systems will increase dramatically. With these higher temperatures problems like bacterial contamination will be more frequent and cause a higher percentage of food spoilage. As food becomes more scarce, the price of foods will increase and the gap between impoverished peoples and Western money giants will quickly widen. A large percentage of the cost of food comes from the transportation of it from farms to households. Before the price of transportation skyrockets, due to the impending peak oil crisis, the issue of food miles needs to be addressed.

The refrigerator has become commonly accepted and used throughout the developed world. Its beneficial properties range from reducing the risk of bacterial growth to boosting the economy through trade. It helps in the prevention of feed spoilage for animals and therefore results in less contaminated meat and meat products (James and James 1945). Refrigerators are welcome in the medical system for storing and shipping blood and organs for medical procedures. Refrigeration has many positive benefits, but they are negated by the many negative impacts.

Giving the average home in the developed world the option of storing food longer, allows people to purchase larger portions of food. Only 40 years ago, less than 60% of the population of the UK had a fridge and only 3% had a freezer (James and James 1953). Now it’s an almost universal appliance in  our increasingly developed and modern world.  By volume, dairy is the most dependent on cooling. Refrigerating milk is very energy taxing and requires “at least 2.5 times more [energy] than all the other major [foods] added together and over 4.5 times more than all types of meat combined” (James and James 1947). This is just one example of the dependency that the modern world has on refrigeration.

There are an estimated one billion refrigerators worldwide. Not only are refrigerators producing carbon dioxide emissions, both directly and indirectly, they are also perpetuating a strange idea of how food should be distributed. In the UK alone, the transport of food accounted for “30 billion vehicle kilometers in 2002” (James and James 1947). Some companies are choosing to invest in “green” technologies to help cut down on their carbon footprint when it comes to food transportation. There are many promising up and coming technologies that might offer a partial solution to the environmental impact that refrigeration currently has. Some of the new technologies currently being developed include: Tri-generation, Air Cycle, Sorption-Adsorption Systems, Ejector refrigeration, Thermoelectric, Stirling Cycle, Thermoacoustic, and Magnetic refrigeration (Tassou et al. 265-274). In some cases environmental reform, bylaws and legislation have been implemented, but there is a hesitation from companies and corporations to comply because there is no obvious monetary gain. Fueling this hesitation is a fear that if a company invests in new, efficient technologies it will only be so long until that technology is outdated. Sourcing foods from local markets rather than transporting them over long distances would help lower carbon emissions produced by the food system.

Most of the pollution caused by refrigerators comes from generating the electricity needed to run them, and from the leakage of refrigerants. This leakage accounts for 20% of the environmental impact that refrigeration has on global warming (James and James 1949). The integration of the 1987 Montreal protocol caused the subsequent phasing out, due to their ozone damaging properties, of CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons), which were the common coolants in refrigerators. It was after this point that the search for the ideal refrigerant began. Companies and scientists began developing HFCs (hydrofluorocarbons) to replace the destructive refrigerants. Many factors are considered when choosing the best and most appropriate refrigerant, and the best of the batch is chosen for production. However, even the International Institute of Refrigeration (IIR), an intergovernmental organization, agrees that there is no refrigerant that doesn’t affect the environment in some way (Pearson 2).

The problem of environmental degradation caused by refrigeration is a technological issue and rarely can a technological issue of this caliber be solved by more technology. There are factors to consider when integrating new technologies, such as how much energy, minerals and resources the new technology will require and how sustainable the system would be after implementing it. As of right now, new technologies would just create larger carbon footprints and perpetuate the policy of transporting food over great distances. The real solution lives outside of the technological box and in the idea of abstaining from refrigeration. This may seem like an extreme solution, but refrigeration is the root cause of the unsustainable system of transportation and storage of goods. We have already seen the impact that some prior solutions have had on the environment: HFCs replace the ozone depleting CFCs, and they reduce the impact on the ozone, but they do not completely abolish it. Another issue with new technologies is that they are not contributing to an overall solution in environmental sustainability; they are merely offering a way to keep the system in place going.

Confronted with the problems that the refrigeration system poses, an unorthodox but logical solution is the elimination of the use of refrigerators. This, however, cannot be done suddenly; it needs to be gradual in order for people to support it. To begin this change, knowledge and better food consciousness is needed. Investing in local economies by way of local farm produce helps. The solution to the elimination of pollution created by the refrigeration system lies in the strengthening of local knowledge of flora and fauna, and how to cultivate it sustainably. Integrating this knowledge into all parts of a society will foster quicker change. Start in the schools systems: have a gardening and permaculture course available in high school, have students take part in starting community gardens, and teach students about where food comes from. Getting involved in local organizations such as food share programs and buying local, organic goods will also generate change. Another interesting idea to consider is the reclaiming of residential lawn spaces for vegetable and herb gardens and turning unused urban space into community gardens. Not only will this foster stronger community bonds, which are essential for local, sustainable living – it will also contribute to a healthier lifestyle. It may seem like a step backwards, and from a technological point of view it is, but we have been going in the wrong direction  for a long time. By giving so much power to technology we have neglected the importance of living in harmony with the land.

The power of the individual is of the utmost importance in cultivating change in society. There are many changes an individual can make to lessen the blow of  our catastrophically damaging food transportation and refrigeration systems. This power lies in the ability to choose how and what to purchase, and being conscious and conscientious consumers. Choosing to “buy local” will reduce the energy needed to transport food and goods. By supporting smaller local markets, which ultimately hold the key to sustainable farming practices, the overall need for refrigeration will decrease. But it’s more than just what we choose to buy; it’s also about personal contributions to local communities. This can include gardening, or leading classes on various sustainable skills. Those who know how to compost, or have any other eco-agricultural knowledge, can offer classes at a local community centre, sharing and spreading knowledge and skills. Cutting out the “distance factor” and investing in local economies eradicates the need for the “energy monster” that is the current standard for food storage and transportation. It is time to head back to the roots of our society, move away from the impractical usage of energy and build up communities again. We have a responsibility to act now in order to prevent the complete destruction of our planet’s fragile ecosystem. By reducing our use of refrigeration or altogether removing it from our lives, we will drastically reduce the pollution created by such an inefficient and impractical system. We do not have the time to create new technologies, but we have time to teach. It is our role, as a people sharing the earth, to create a sustainable life for future generations.

Justen Boss Moodie is a first year university student with a strong desire to live earth-friendly. He currently lives without the use of a fridge.

Works Cited:

Blowers, Paul, and James M. Lownsbury. “Carbon Dioxide Emission Implications if Hydrofluorocarbons are Regulated: A Refrigeration Case Study.” Environmental Science & Technology 44.5 (2010): 1526-1529. ACS Journals. Web. 24 Nov. 2010.

James, C., and S.J. James. “The Food Cold-Chain and Climate Change .” Food Research International 43.7 (2010): 1944-1956. ScienceDirect. Web. 24 Nov. 2010.

Tassou, S.A., et al. “A Review of Emerging Technologies for Food Refrigeration Applications.” Applied Thermal Engineering 30.4 (2101): 263-276. ScienceDirect. Web. 8 Nov. 2010.

Drake, Frances, Jane Hunt, and Martin Purvis. “Meeting the Environmental Challenge: A Case of Win–Win or Lose–Win? A Study of the UK Baking and Refrigeration Industries.”Business Strategy and the Environment 13.3 (2004): 172-186. Wiley Online Library. Web. 8 Nov. 2010.

Pearson, S. Forbes. “How to Improve Energy Efficiency In Refrigerating Equipment.” International Institute of Refrigeration. Intergovernmental Organization for the Development of Refrigeration, 2003. Web. 10 Nov. 2010.

“The Role of Refrigeration in Worldwide Nutrition.” International Institute of Refrigeration. Intergovernmental Organization for the Development of Refrigeration, 2009. Web. 10 Nov. 2010.