Global Awareness Fall 2017
Professor Laura Johnson
Object of Concern Term Paper
December 10, 2017
The refrigerator is a common kitchen appliance that provides a space to store and extend the lifespan of our food. Most people have relatively simple interactions with refrigerators such as just grabbing a snack, unpacking groceries, and not much else. However, from manufacturing to disposal, there is a lot more behind this ordinary kitchen appliance than one may think.
BRIEF HISTORY OF REFRIGERATORS
Refrigerators are a relatively recent invention that has revolutionized the way people store food. Before the refrigerator was invented, there were many natural ways to store and preserve food. In northern regions of the world, people cut blocks of naturally occurring ice or dug pits in the snow that they used for food storage (Ross 2017). In other regions of the world where snow or ice were not available, people used cold streams or underground cellars to store their food in a cold place (Ross 2017). In addition, other forms of preservation such as salting and drying were also used to extend the lifespan of food. Until the last few centuries these forms of natural food storage were widely used. However, increasing population growth and the development of cities further removed from food sources have increased the demand for modern forms of food storage.
In the mid-1700s, Scottish professor William Cullen developed the first plans for artificial refrigeration (Ross 2017). Throughout the 1800s inventors developed various prototypes as they experimented with different methods of fluid refrigerant for artificial refrigeration. In 1835, American inventor Jacob Perkins built the first refrigerator based on a vapor compression system which was then modified by British journalist James Harrison who built the first commercial refrigerator (Ross 2017). The commercial refrigerator industry grew quickly due to high demand from breweries and the meatpacking industry. By the 1920s, the domestic refrigerator was being mass produced for the first time and currently it is estimated that there are 170 million refrigerators in households throughout the United States (Energy Star 2017).
HOW A REFRIGERATOR WORKS
The most common refrigerator is still based on a vapor compression system. A vapor compression system utilizes a compressor, condenser coils, evaporator coils, an expansion valve, and a fluid refrigerant. The fluid refrigerant enters the evaporative coils where it will absorb heat within the refrigerator keeping it cold on the inside. The fluid refrigerant enters the compressor which increases the pressure on the fluid refrigerant to convert it to a vapor. Now the vapor refrigerant enters the condenser coils on the outside of the refrigerator. The vapor refrigerant removes heat from the system which is released through the expansion valve. The refrigerant returns to fluid form before entering the evaporative coils to start the cycle over again (Brain and Elliot 2006). By keeping perishable food items cold in a refrigerator system, it prevents the growth of bacteria and extends the lifespan of the food.
ENVIRONMENTAL/SOCIAL IMPACT: EMISSIONS
In early refrigerator models, refrigerant fluid safety became a concern. The refrigerant fluids that were used were highly reactive, flammable, and toxic posing significant risks to consumers (EPA 2016). American chemist Thomas Midgley and his colleagues were responsible for finding safer forms of refrigerant fluids. From their research, they determined that fluoride compounds appeared to be relatively nonreactive and safer overall so they developed synthetic chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in order to be used as refrigerant fluids (EPA 2016). By the 1930s, CFCs were used as the main refrigerant fluids. However, it wasn’t recognized until 50 years later that CFCs caused significant environmental destruction. In particular CFCs contribute to depletion of the ozone layer in the atmosphere and global warming (EPA 2016). When CFCs are released into the atmosphere from the manufacturing process, leakage, or disposal they break down into their chemical components which results in the production of free chlorine (van der Linde 1994). The chlorine reacts with and breaks down the protective ozone layer allowing more ultraviolent light to enter earth’s atmosphere (van der Linde 1994). Consequently, increased exposure to higher levels of ultraviolet light due to human-caused degradation of the ozone layer has been linked to the development of skin cancers putting human health at risk.
In response to this environmental and health threat, the Montreal Protocol was enacted in 1987. The Montreal Protocol is an international environmental agreement that prompted the phase out of CFCs usage in appliances by 1995 (van der Linde 1994). Eventually, CFCs were replaced with hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) which are still widely used in today’s refrigerant fluids. However, both HCFCs and HFCs are still not ideal replacements for CFCs. HCFCs also contribute to the depletion of the ozone layer. The Montreal Protocol has been expanded to include the phase out of other substances harmful to the ozone layer, like HCFCs, by 2030 (USDA Forest Service 2013). While HFCs do not impact the ozone layer, they are considered to be strong greenhouse gases and are 10,000 times more potent than carbon dioxide, another greenhouse gas (Koch 2016). Overall, HFCs make up a small percentage of emitted greenhouse gases, but they have a largely disproportionate environmental impact and increase the threat of global warming. In order to reduce the amount of ozone-depleting and greenhouse gases emitted by refrigerators as well as other appliances, the U.S. EPA has developed the Significant New Alternatives Program (SNAP) under the Clean Air Act. SNAP lists acceptable and unacceptable substitutes for substances like refrigerant fluids which are categorized based on their ozone depletion and global warming potentials as well as their impacts on ecosystems and human health (EPA 2017). While most refrigerant fluids still emit some level of greenhouse gases, SNAP has identified several alternative refrigerant fluids that have a lower environmental impact and pose less of a risk to human health.
However, there are new technologies that are being developed to provide alternative methods of cooling that do not require any refrigerant fluids at all. For example, the magnetocaloric refrigeration system uses magnets and water-based fluids to produce high cooling efficiency (Denchak 2015). Magnetocaloric refrigeration systems could be commercially available as early as 2020. Another alternative method is a thermoelectric cooling refrigerator system (Denchak 2015). Alternative refrigeration systems are overall safer to use and more environmentally friendly because they do not require the use of refrigerant fluids which emit greenhouse gases.
ENVIRONMENTAL/SOCIAL IMPACT: ENERGY USAGE
Refrigerators are also one of the most energy demanding household appliances. Before the late 1970s, there were no energy efficient standards for refrigerators. Energy use by refrigerators was actually increasing with each consecutive year. For a single refrigerator, energy use peaked at 2,000 kWh per year which cost consumers about $1,250 per year (Noll 2014). At this time there were few incentives for the refrigerator industry to manufacture energy efficient refrigerators. However, in 1978 California introduced the first energy efficient standards which led to the implementation of federal standards for refrigerators developed by the Department of Energy (Noll 2014).
These new regulations as well as financial incentives prompted the transformation of the refrigerator industry. They made improvements and developed new technologies such as better types of insulation, heat exchangers, and more efficient compressors to reduce the amount of energy that refrigerators use. Since their establishment, the energy efficient standards have been updated seven times. The implementation of these updates has resulted in an overall decrease in average household refrigerator energy use to 500 kWh per year which cost consumers $550 per year (Noll 2014). The most recent energy efficient standards update, implemented in 2014, is estimated to save 5% of the total energy usage by the United States and save $36 billion over the next 30 years (Noll 2014). Also, it also saves about 344 tons of carbon dioxide emissions, the equivalent of greenhouse gas emissions from 70 million cars, from the process of generating the electricity intending to be used by refrigerators (Noll 2014).
In addition to regulations and incentives, the Energy Star certification program was developed to promote energy efficiency in and lessen the environmental impacts of refrigerators and other appliances. Energy Star is a program that is independent from federal energy efficiency standards. Refrigerators that have the Energy Star certification indicates that they are 20% more energy efficient than other refrigerators (Energy Star 2017). Of the 170 million refrigerators in households throughout the United States, about 60 million of them are older models that are energy inefficient. If consumers upgraded to Energy Star certified or other efficient refrigerators, it is estimated that it would save about $4.4 billion in energy costs (Energy Star 2017). While Energy Star certified refrigerators are more expensive than other refrigerators, the consumer saves money on their electricity bill in the long run.
ENVIRONMENTAL/SOCIAL IMPACT: FOOD WASTE
Throughout the past few decades, new refrigerators have steadily increased in size. Refrigerators in the United States average about 21 cubic feet which are the largest in the world (Noll 2014). Larger refrigerators match the trend of bigger houses, bigger cars, bigger food serving sizes and many other super-sized commodities (Kleiman 2015). Large refrigerators are a reflection of the consumer culture driven by capitalism within the United States. Also, big grocery shopping hauls once a week is uniquely characteristic of Americans. Having a large refrigerator means that there is more room to put perishable food enabling big grocery shopping hauls. While it may limit the amount of times people need to run to the store, they tend to randomly overstock as they buy more food than they need or can eat before it spoils (Kleiman 2015). These over-consumptive habits that stem from our culture are enabled by larger refrigerators which results in an increase in food waste.
In addition, improper food storage behaviors and the organization of food items within refrigerators have been linked to the generation of food waste. In order to analyze food storage behaviors, researchers conducted an observational study in which consumer behavior of placing food within refrigerators was monitored (Masson et al 2016). Participants within the study were given a grocery shopping list with various perishable and dry food items. Once they had bought all of the food items they began placing the perishable food items in the refrigerator. Researchers noted which foods they put in first and where they put them. From the results of their study, they concluded that many consumers did not follow the food storage guidelines recommended by the U.S. EPA and FDA resulting in inefficient food storage and the potential for food items to spoil more quickly (Masson et al 2016).
The food storage guidelines aim to reduce food waste by suggesting where food should be stored and at which temperatures within the refrigerator. As recommended by the USDA (2015), the lower shelves are the coldest part of the refrigerator which is where poultry, fish, and other meats should be stored in order to maximize preservation of these items. The upper shelves are cool enough for food items that are not considered high risk like leftovers or other food items that will be eaten fairly quickly. Proper food storage of produce within the refrigerator is particularly important since most food waste generated from households are rotten fruits and vegetables. If the refrigerator has adjustable humidity settings, it is recommended that leafy greens should be stored in a high humidity crisper drawer and that fruits should be stored in a low humidity crisper drawer. The shelves on the door are the warmest part of the refrigerator which is not ideal for perishable food item storage and are more suitable for condiments. Overall, in order to reduce food waste associated with refrigerators it is important not to randomly overstock and to properly store the food to extend its lifespan.
FRIDGE OF THE FUTURE: NEW REFRIGERATOR TECHNOLOGY
The refrigerator of the future is closer than one may think. New technologies are being incorporated into the refrigerator to create a smart kitchen appliance. Refrigerators will be able to communicate to the manufacturing and utility company, your cellphone, and other appliances as well (Denchak 2015). This will provide the manufacturing company with functional status and whether or not the refrigerator needs to be repaired. The utility company will be informed about the energy efficiency of the refrigerator. And by having the refrigerator communicate with cellphones, it will allow the consumer to see what is inside and even have the refrigerator text them a grocery list of what is needed when they are at the grocery store so that they buy only what they need and prevent unnecessary purchases.
As mentioned above, fruits and vegetables are the most common wasted food items in a refrigerator. However, new technologies within the refrigerator aim to reduce the amount of produce that spoils. Ethylene is a chemical produced by rotting produce and other food items. In new refrigerators, ethylene detectors have been installed to monitor the freshness of produce as well as leftovers in food storage containers (Denchak 2015). Once these items start to decay they activate the ethylene detectors which sends an alert to the consumer informing them that these food items should be used fairly soon before they spoil.
New refrigerators are also being designed to reduce the amount of time that the refrigerator door is left open. When the refrigerator door is left open it wastes about 7% of the refrigerator’s energy (Denchak 2015). The new door-in-door design aims to reduce the amount of time that the door to the main refrigerator compartment has to be opened. The new door-in-door compartment allows for storage of food items that are used often without actually opening the real door in order to save energy (Denchak 2015).
There are various new refrigerator technologies and designs being developed many of which may appear as unnecessary accessories. However, there are some new refrigerator technologies, as mentioned above, that aim to create an environmentally friendly refrigerator by increasing energy efficiency and reducing food waste during consumer usage.
ENVIRONMENTAL/SOCIAL IMPACT: E-WASTE
While new refrigerator technology is being developed to create an environmentally friendly refrigerator during consumer usage, e-waste generated by refrigerators as well as other appliances and electronic devices poses environmental and social problems. The United States produces the most e-waste in the world with 3 million tons per year (Robbins et al 2014). The majority of e-waste generated by developed countries is dumped in developing countries where they have fewer environmental regulations (Robbins et al 2014). Many people in developing countries try to recover any valuable materials from the e-waste in order to resell it. In older refrigerators, many contain CFCs which are released into the air when people try to recover other refrigerator parts. The toxic materials that appliances and electronic devices are made with pose a threat to their health and pollute their environment creating an environmental justice issue. Cooperation on a global scale in the form of accountability and environmental regulations are needed to address the unsustainable problem of e-waste. On a more local scale, Southern California Edison Company (SCEC) has developed a recycling program in order to redirect older inefficient refrigerators from the landfill (Cavanagh 2012). In May of 2012, SCEC had recycled 1 million refrigerators. SCEC separates all plastic and metal parts from refrigerators in order to be reused. In the process they also capture harmful ozone depleting CFCs from older refrigerator systems (Cavanagh 2012).
REFRIGERATORS IN DEVELOPING COUNTRIES
So far, much of this paper has discussed refrigerators that are powered by electricity and has assumed that electricity is available. However, there are large areas of today’s world where electricity is not available, but innovators have developed methods of cooling in order to store perishable food items. For example, in rural Africa many people do not have access to electricity and therefore do not own modern refrigerators. However, keeping perishable food items cool and preventing spoilage is extremely important in a desert environment (Strauss 2016). In the late 1990s, college professor and innovator Mohammed Bah Abba developed a pot-in-pot food cooling system for rural Nigerians (Strauss 2016). The pot-in-pot food cooling system consists of two large hand-formed earthen pots, wet sand, and a wet cloth which only costs no more than $4. The first earthen pot is filled with wet sand and the second earthen pot which contains the perishable food items is nested within the first pot. As the water evaporates from the wet sand in the outer earthen pot, the inner earthen pot is cooled to 40⁰F and the wet cloth retains the cooling effect. A total of 100,000 pot-in-pot food cooling systems have been distributed to rural Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, Eritrea, and Sudan helping to raise the standard of living for many rural African farmers and families (Strauss 2016).
Refrigerators have revolutionized the way that we store food by extending the lifespan of perishable food items. Throughout the years the refrigerator industry has undergone many changes producing modern refrigerators that emit less greenhouse gases, are more energy efficient and help to reduce food waste. In regions of the world where electricity is not available, innovators are developing alternative food cooling systems which are transforming the lifestyles of many rural people. The goal of a completely environmentally friendly refrigerator that poses no threats to human health has yet to be achieved, but new refrigerator technology makes this goal attainable.
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