What ever happened to: "Small fridges make good cities"

TreeHugger is ten years old this August. We're taking a look back at some of the changes that have happened in the green movement over the decade.

In 2007, The Interior Design Show displayed what remains the most beautiful and well thought out kitchen I have ever seen, designed by Donald Chong, now with Williamson Chong architects in Toronto. Chong's thesis was that Small fridges make good cities- people who have them are out in their community every day buy what is seasonal and fresh, buy as much as they need, responding to the marketplace, the baker, vegetable store and neighbourhood vendor.

Oprah Tours Fridges in Copenhagen

This is quite common in Europe, where people do expect to shop every day. Watch what happened when Oprah toured a "typical" Danish apartment and finds that all they have is a fridge that in America would be considered a bar fridge. She is completely shocked.

Saving Food From The Fridge: It Will Taste Better, May Even Last Longer And Reduce Your Energy Bills

© Jihyun Ryou

There is also so much food that doesn't actually have to be in the fridge at all. Korean designer Jihyun Ryou made this point most graphically with her food storage systems, based on traditional ways of preserving food. Because as Kris De Decker of Low Tech Magazine noted, we have forgotten how to do it. "We hand over the responsibility of taking care of food to the technology, the refrigerator. We don’t observe the food any more and we don’t understand how to treat it." Kris explains the real benefit of keeping stuff out of the fridge:

The more food you can keep out of the fridge, the smaller it needs to be and the less energy it will consume. The designs described above show a refreshing way to do that, although it should be remembered that these are artworks, not consumer products. Using similar methods when storing food in a basement or a specially designed root cellar - the traditional way - will give better results.

Instead, I noted that "today most fridges are filled with stuff that would last just as long and probably would taste a lot better if it was never lost in the back of the fridge. They are expensive air conditioned parking lots."

On Jevons' Paradox and The Size of Your Refrigerator


There have been a lot of things that we have covered in TreeHugger that have become trends. This is one that went nowhere. In fact, fridges just keep getting bigger. They also are adapting to the way people graze instead of eat. This LG fridge has doors within doors; I wrote:

If you watch the commercial, they are visiting the fridge for cheeze snax, pop and juice, and one can imagine they are opening the fridge 50 times per day. So LG has designed the fridge to if not encourage, to support this unhealthy and fattening way of eating. "It lets you grab your food with ease and sends you on your way."

By this time it was clear that not only do small fridges make better cities, they make healthier people.

Small fridges make good cities, but American fridges just keep getting bigger

Old refrigerator ad/Promo image

It turns out to be a losing battle. A year ago, Jonathan Rees justified the big American fridge in the Atlantic as a product of the culture where the family shops once a week at the big box, and called it a uniquely American habit that had beneficial results:

Thanks to the efficiencies associated with the modern cold chain, almost every American can now afford to eat foods out of season, or foods of all kinds shipped in from far away.

More food cooling = more global warming

Lloyd Alter/ they are doing less and less of this in China as the "cold chain" takes over/CC BY 2.0

I tried to point out that the modern cold chain is a huge energy burden, " powering refrigerated shipping containers, trucks, warehouses and vast banks of fridges in the supermarket selling prepared foods." And in fact, it isn't just Americans who are contributing to this. In a wonderful article in the New York Times Magazine this week, Nicola Twilley asked What Do Chinese Dumplings Have to Do With Global Warming? She describes the growth of the cold chain in China, the spread of refrigeration and what it is doing to the climate and to the diet.

This is not simply transforming how Chinese people grow, distribute and consume food. It also stands to become a formidable new factor in climate change; cooling is already responsible for 15 percent of all electricity consumption worldwide, and leaks of chemical refrigerants are a major source of greenhouse-gas pollution. Of all the shifts in lifestyle that threaten the planet right now, perhaps not one is as important as the changing way that Chinese people eat.

They are refrigerating more and pickling less. Fuchsia Dunlop complains: " At the moment that America’s long-lost pickling, salting and smoking traditions are being revived, China’s much richer and more ancient preservation techniques are dying out."

Your Giant American Refrigerator Is Making You Fat And Poor

Lloyd Alter/ Double Miele fridge at Interior Design Show/CC BY 2.0

As recently as this morning, Dan Nosowitz of Gawker wrote this post about the problems of large fridges, and about how they encourage bad eating habits.

Bigger fridges encourage unhealthy eating habits. Brian Wansink, a professor of nutritional science and consumer behavior at Cornell and the former executive director of the USDA's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, did a study of warehouse club shoppers that showed that families that have more food in the house eat more food. If your freezer is large enough to house the family SUV and is full of ice cream because you bought it in bulk on a deal, you're going to eat more of that ice cream than if you'd just bought a single carton for your sensibly-sized freezer.

He notes that small fridges cost lest to purchase, use less electricity to operate, occupy less real estate in the kitchen, and "smaller is almost always cheaper than bigger. BUT. It gets more complex! The idea is: Shop more often, for less food, and everything will be better."

But we have become a culture where everyone drives the SUV to Walmart to buy three weeks worth of food, and don't know what a fresh vegetable tastes like anymore. Shopping for a fridge for my daughter's apartment last month at the big box, It was hard to find an Energy Star rated single door 30" fridge. Everything was 36" with fancy french doors. The salesman told me that those are the only thing that sells, they had to order one in special for me.

© Williamson Chong

I will keep pushing the "small fridges make good cities"; we will keep stressing the virtues of canning instead of freezing, of eating with the seasons, of buying fresh and local. But all indications are that worldwide, it is going in the other direction.

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