It’s a difficult question and one that we think about a lot. We’ve done a little homework and have found some interesting and promising estimates. Take, for example, the idea of extending the lifespan of mini-fridges. Our research suggests that if the lifespan of every mini-fridge in use on college campuses in the U.S. was extended by just one year, we would keep more than 11 million pounds of metals, glass, plastic, and chemicals out of the waste stream and eliminate 3.5 million pounds of carbon emissions – each year!
If you’re interested in reading our full analysis, check out our environmental sustainability statement below. Or maybe you’d like to be part of our efforts. Our calculations currently rely heavily on rather general academic studies, so we would appreciate hearing about any studies that specifically focus on the waste stream and greenhouse gas impacts of mini-fridges. Or maybe you, or someone you know, would be interested in doing some new research in this area. In addition, we would like to collect more data about the lifespans of mini-fridges by conducting a large-scale survey of mini-fridge owners. If you are a college student or former college student who owns or owned a mini-fridge, please click here to take our environmental research survey.
One obvious way to reduce our collective environmental impact is to increase the lifespan of household appliances – longer lifespans delay the need for replacement, reducing the annual energy and material inputs needed for us to keep those appliances in our lives. By helping keep more mini-fridges in use during the prime years of their lifespan (rather than in parents’ basements or other storage), Re-Fridge reduces the annual quantity of materials going into the waste stream and the annual quantity of materials and energy needed to manufacture new mini-fridges. And of course, these reductions will reduce annual greenhouse gas emissions as well.
Mini-fridges have an average lifespan of about 9 years,1 but they may spend more of their lifespan in storage than any other common appliance. While we haven’t yet found any reliable research on the true “use-span” of mini-fridges, our own survey findings indicate that the average mini-fridge used by a college student in the U.S. (aka a “college mini-fridge”) is actually used for only about 6 years.2 (This may be true for non-college mini-fridges as well, but our survey focused on college mini-fridges.) Our survey findings also suggest that the main reason for well-functioning college mini-fridges to be used for much less than the “normal” 9-year life-span is that they are often taken home by college students (consuming additional fossil fuel, btw) and put in storage for several years.
While some of these mini-fridges are eventually pulled back into use, by then they are often significantly less energy efficient than the mini-fridges that have been manufactured more recently, and environmental experts tell us that it’s better to put energy-inefficient appliances into the waste stream than continue to use them. In addition, while some of these stored mini-fridges may function for a while after being pulled out of storage, all mini-fridges continue to age somewhat while in storage, so their functioning lifespan is shortened by storage. The bottom line is that the environment would benefit if mini-fridges spent more of their prime years in actual use than in long-term storage in parents’ basements or elsewhere. This is where Re-Fridge comes in.
If Re-Fridge was able to keep every one of the 1.5 million college mini-fridges3 out of long-term storage and in actual use for just one extra year (from 6 to 7 years), this one-year ”use-span” increase would reduce the number of mini-fridges going into the waste stream by at least 250,000 per year (calculation based on a 6-year “use-span”). This would mean an annual waste stream reduction of over 5 million lbs. of ferrous metals, over 5 million lbs. of plastics, and over 1 million lbs. of glass, refrigerant and refrigerant oil.4 It would also mean a comparable reduction in the creation of materials and energy needed to manufacture and ship 250,000 replacement mini-fridges each year. And although it’s harder to quantify, it stands to reason that any “use-span” increase would also reduce the collective energy use by the “population” of mini-fridges in the U.S. because fewer old, energy-inefficient mini-fridges (that had been in long-term storage) would be in use – more of those mini-fridges would have been more “used-up” while still in their prime years.
But the disposal of functioning mini-fridges into already overburdened waste streams is just one of the energy-consuming phases of the refrigerator lifecycle. In the initial production and wide-scale manufacturing of mini-fridges, in their packaging and distribution, and in their ultimate disposal we see the use of huge quantities of natural resources, water, caustic chemicals, and energy derived primarily from fossil fuels. While Re-Fridge continues to investigate this lifecycle, in order to better understand our effect on it, we believe we can give some accurate estimates when it comes to packaging waste and the reduction of fossil fuel emissions from transportation of new fridges. Assuming, as we do above, that we keep 250,000 mini-fridges out of the waste stream (and therefore eliminate the need to create as many new ones), we estimate that we can remove 1.15 million pounds of corrugated cardboard, 50 thousand pounds of plastic film, and 175 thousand pounds of polystyrene from going into waste streams each year.5 We further think that this reduction in new fridges would mean an elimination of at least 3.5 million pounds of carbon emissions going into the atmosphere annually6 simply from reducing the pollution caused by transporting the fridges. And that’s just from extending mini-fridge lifecycles by one year!
As an important component of its mission, Re-Fridge aims to keep college mini-fridges in use during the prime years of their lifespan rather going into long-term storage and ending up in landfills without having been used to their fullest. Like many contemporary businesses, we want to find efficiencies and develop solutions to pressing environment and global problems. With the help of our users, we do this by reducing the annual quantity of materials going into the waste stream, reducing the annual quantity of materials and energy used to produce new fridges, and in turn reducing overall greenhouse gas emissions.
1. In terms of mini-fridge longevity, compact refrigerators have a low lifespan of 4, high lifespan of 12, and average lifespan of 8 years (10, 18, and 14 respectively for standard fridges)(1). Some harder to verify sources have the average around 5 years (2) or 7-10 years (3). The National Association of Home Builders did a 2010 study that found 9 years on average (4). This being a more conservative estimate of the appliance industry study, we believe it to be a fair estimate.
(1) Life expectancy of appliances as reported in the 23rd annual portrait of the U.S. appliance industry. (http://www.mrappliance.com/expert-tips/appliance-life-guide/)
2. In March 2016 Re-Fridge conducted a survey of college students and grads who had owned a mini-fridge while attending school. Responses suggested the average lifespan of respondents’ mini-fridges was 6 years.
3. This figure is derived from an estimate of total U.S. enrollment and the percentage of students living on- and off-campus (1, 2, 3, 4) as well as an estimate of the percentage of college students owning mini-fridges (5).
(2) According to the most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau, a total of 2,064,130 people live in college dormitories. (http://www.census.gov/population/cen2000/phc-t26/tab01.pdf)
(4) 1.8 million students live in dorms, according to a November 21, 2003, article in The Chronicle Review.
4. Based on the average size and material composition of a typical mini-fridge. We have determined these numbers through our own analysis of various mini-fridges on the market and in use.
5. The assessment of packaging materials and composition comes from a survey conducted on eco-friendly fridges, assessed based on the average dimensions and weight of a full-size refrigerator from that survey vis-a-vis the average dimensions and weight of a mini-fridge. Find that survey here: http://ac.els-cdn.com/S187802961200610X/1-s2.0-S187802961200610X-main.pdf?_tid=dd52f516-f5f5-11e5-96c6-00000aab0f26&acdnat=1459287383_bdb29a996ba76596885f05fcbf3073cd.
6. That survey was also helpful in determining the average distance that new fridges travel, as well as transportation methods (page 526). For estimates of the carbon emissions created by various types of shipping transport, we used the following resource: http://timeforchange.org/co2-emissions-shipping-goods.