Beth Barnes wanted to reduce her carbon footprint and make a difference in this ecologically fragile world.
But first she had to ask herself: Can I give up frozen pizza?
The answer, as it turned out, was yes. And forgoing instant cheesy goodness wasn't the hardest part about giving up her refrigerator. That one gesture, she said, changed the way she thinks about food and shopping.
"You do have to think about your food all the time. Will this fit in the cooler? Do I have ice in the cooler? If you haven't really thought about that sort of thing, it would be a wake-up call," she said.
But she's a longtime recycler who has a compost pail on her apartment porch, so that's kind of what she was going for.
"I decided to do something that would hurt," she said.
Barnes, 30, is among a small but growing number of people across the country who are forgoing the refrigerator to cut back on energy consumption. (The rest of us, the other 99.5 percent, are still chilling.)
To get started, she traded tips with the other fridge-less among us and discovered that eggs, if bought fresh and never refrigerated, do just fine out of the ice box and that butter can last a while without being cold. (The plus, she said, is that it's easier to spread.)
For several months, she didn't use the fridge in her Frankfort apartment at all. Instead, she filled up a cooler each day with ice and stored what had to stay chilled there.
"I was surprised to find out how much I could get away with not refrigerating," she said.
Eventually, because she travels often for her job, she decided that a cooler wasn't practical. She wasn't ready to go back to the full-scale fridge, so she got a mini-fridge, the size you might find in a dorm room. In there, she keeps milk, cheese and eggs, and some allergy medication that needs to be kept cold.
There are no statistics on how many folks are following Barnes' example, but the idea of saving electricity by changing your cold-storage habits has generated some interest in Western Europe. Last fall, scientists at Oxford University in England revived the "Einstein refrigerator," a pressurized gas fridge that runs without using electricity. Instead of compressing freon or other man-made greenhouse gases, as typical refrigerators do, the prototype uses pressurized gas to keep items cold. And Veneta Cucine, the Italian kitchen company, recently unveiled a concept kitchen called the iGreen, which has no refrigerator. Instead, it uses trays under the countertop to hold fresh produce.
People who do best without a refrigerator often have certain built-in lifestyle advantages — they live alone and don't have to cook large meals for a family, say, or they live on a farm or within walking distance of a grocery store.
For the last two years, Rachel Muston, 32, an information-technology worker for the Canadian government in Ottawa, has taken steps to reduce her carbon footprint: composting, line-drying clothes, installing an efficient furnace in her three-story house downtown.
About a year ago, she and her husband, Scott Young, unplugged their refrigerator.
"It's been a while, and we're pretty happy," Muston said recently.
Muston estimated that her own fridge, which was in the house when they bought it five years ago and most likely dates back much longer, used 1,300 kilowatt-hours a year, producing roughly 2,000 pounds of carbon dioxide — the same amount that would come from burning 105 gallons of gasoline. And even a newer, more efficient model, which could have cut that figure in half, would have used too much energy, in her view.
Muston now uses a small freezer in the basement in tandem with a cooler upstairs; the cooler is kept cold by 2-liter soda bottles full of frozen water, which are rotated to the freezer when they melt. (The fridge, meanwhile, sits empty in the kitchen.)
But it could be more a feel-good measure than a world saver. Recent studies from the Department of Energy show that a refrigerator uses the least amount of energy of all home appliances.
Marty O'Gorman, a vice president of Frigidaire, said an 18-cubic-foot Energy Star-rated Frigidaire refrigerator uses about 380 kilowatt-hours a year — less than a standard clothes dryer — and costs a homeowner $40, or about 11 cents a day.
Pascale Maslin, the founder of Energy Efficiency Experts, a Washington-based company that conducts energy audits on homes and other buildings, said people might focus undue attention on the refrigerator's energy consumption simply because they often hear — incorrectly, it turns out — that it is the household appliance that uses the most energy other than heating and cooling systems.
"If I was to examine my life and ask what would reduce my carbon footprint, I would say stop eating meat," Maslin said. "That's much more significant than unplugging your fridge."
The thought of tampering with the time-honored tradition such as the fridge in the kitchen rankles some people. Barnes, who was featured in an article in The New York Times, received a postcard that called her a privileged hypocrite. Barnes admits that some people have looked at her like she was crazy when she said she gave up her fridge.
She says that "people lived for thousands of years without refrigeration." Plus, she said, "I've never told anybody to unplug their fridge."
But, she said, by doing her part, "I'm making a statement every day."