10 Decisions To Help You Refrigerate Sustainably

From arranging food smartly to embracing new fridge technology, here's how to make your refrigeration as green as possible.

I cram too much stuff in my refrigerator, and inevitably some of it goes bad. I blame some of that on loving to cook and living a long way from a store. But excuses aside, focusing on less food waste and more sustainable refrigeration are problems I recently set about fixing, for several reasons:

  • Grocery bills are out of hand;
  • The average family of four wastes about $1,500 per year on spoiled food;
  • Fridges account for about 20% of household power usage;
  • Food waste creates a lot of environmental harm.

“When we waste food, we waste everything that went into it: water, fertilizer, land and the energy to transport, package and store it,” says Alex Nichols-Vinueza, program manager for the World Wildlife Fund‘s Food Loss and Waste program. Plus, once wasted food hits the landfill, it creates a lot of methane, the super-potent greenhouse gas.

“One of the most important ways individuals can fight climate change is to reduce their food waste,” says Stephanie Miller, author of Zero Waste Living, the 80/20 Way and founder of Zero Waste in DC. “The refrigerator and freezer should be our weapons of choice.”

Here are some tips on how to use your fridge and freezer most effectively, from Miller; Nichols-Vinueza; Dr. Brian Roe of Ohio State University; Salih “Sazi” Bugay, vice president of product management for Beko; and my personal experience.

Choose an Efficient Refrigerator

Newer Energy Star-rated refrigerators are much more efficient than older models. Emerging technologies like Beko’s HarvestFresh keep vegetables fresher longer and preserve vitamin content by using colored lights in the crisper drawer that mimic the 24-hour sun cycle.

This fridge, and some others, also use a new refrigerant technology (R600a), which has negligible greenhouse gas emissions.

When choosing a new refrigerator, also opt for a freezer on the top or bottom, which uses less energy than side-by-side models. And consider a smaller fridge to reduce energy use.

Plan Shopping and Meals

“Take a few minutes before your shopping trip to figure out what you will be eating that week, what you already have on hand and what you need to buy,” says Nichols-Vinueza. He recommends using the online tool Meal Prep Mate to stick to your shopping list and avoid impulse purchases and associated waste.

Arrange By Lifespan

Put foods with the shortest lifespan toward the front and top shelf so you remember to eat them.

“Do a quick daily fridge review for items that are likely to go bad soon,” says Miller. “We label a shelf in our fridge ‘Eat Me First’ to take the guesswork out of the ‘What should I eat next?’ question.”

Review your freezer contents every few months, too, and eat older items before they get freezer burn.

Understand Expiration Dates

Most foods are fine after their expiration and best-by dates.

“There are critical products, such as deli meats and soft cheeses,” says Roe. “However, for most products, the label dates indicate the manufacturer’s best estimate of when quality, not safety, begins to decline.”

If it doesn’t look, smell, feel or taste funky, it’s probably OK. This guide from FoodSafety.org can help you tell as well.

Focus on Produce

Prep veggies right when you bring them home, and research how to optimally store the commonly used ones.

“Two of our repeats are lettuce and carrots,” says Miller. “As soon as we get home from the grocery store, I peel the carrots and submerge them in water in a Pyrex container.” With lettuce, she recommends rinsing the leaves and leaving them wrapped in a damp towel in the produce drawer.

When produce passes its prime, all is not lost. Roe recommends cooking wilted veggies in soups, casseroles, stir fries and sauces, and fruits in baked goods and smoothies.

Store Foods in Optimal Locations

“Many fruits give off natural gases as they ripen, making other nearby produce spoil faster,” says Roe. “Store bananas, apples and tomatoes by themselves, and store fruits and vegetables in different bins.” Use this online tool for a cheat sheet.

Also, bottom shelves are usually colder, which is good for meats and seafoods. Doors are warmer, so don’t store milk there. Keep one veggie drawer vent closed (more humid) for veggies that tend to wilt, and one open (less humid) for items that rot, like fruits and mushrooms.

Don’t Put Everything in the Fridge

“Placing bulk items like a 12-pack of drinks inside the fridge, or large plastic containers, is an inefficient use of door bins and shelving and makes the refrigerator less efficient,” says Bugay.

Also, don’t overload the freezer. A packed compartment makes it hard for the freezer to do its job.

Plan for Leftovers

Store leftovers in transparent containers. “What isn’t visible is the most likely food to be ignored,” says Miller. For better sustainability and health, use glass containers instead of plastic ones.

Also, freeze leftovers after a few days. “That extra portion of uneaten dinner tonight will be a welcome defrosted meal on a future busy weeknight,” says Miller. You can even freeze tomato paste, soup and lemon juice. Pro tip: Squeeze the juice into an ice cube tray.

Close the Door

Obviously, opening the door a lot decreases efficiency. “The fridge will constantly work to bring down the internal temperature and humidity level to set values, which means that the compressor and other elements are constantly working and using excessive energy,” says Bugay.

Maximize Refrigerator Mechanics

  • Vacuum fridge coils twice a year to help the fan cool them efficiently.
  • Periodically examine and clean door seals.
  • Keep the fridge temperature between 37 and 39 degrees, and the freezer around 0 degrees. For accuracy, purchase a refrigerator thermometer.
  • Try to place your refrigerator away from sunny windows and the stove.

Karuna Eberl
A freelance writer and indie film producer, Karuna Eberl covers the outdoors and nature side of DIY, exploring wildlife, green living, travel and gardening for Family Handyman. She also writes FH’s Eleven Percent column, about dynamic women in the construction workforce. Some of her other credits include the March cover of Readers Digest, National Parks, National Geographic Channel and Atlas Obscura. Karuna and her husband are also on the final stretch of renovating an abandoned house in a near-ghost town in rural Colorado. When they’re not working, you can find them hiking and traveling the backroads, camping in their self-converted van.