In recent years, there has been a big push for households to upgrade appliances to more energy efficient models. New refrigerators often tout their Energy Star ratings and advertise how much less electricity they use compared to older models. However, replacing an old working refrigerator with a brand new energy efficient one may not always be the best choice for the environment. There are some important factors to consider before making the decision to get rid of your old fridge.
Manufacturing and Materials of New vs Old Refrigerators
The first thing to think about is the energy and materials required to manufacture a new refrigerator. Even though new fridges use less electricity, the production of each new fridge requires a lot of energy, water, chemicals, and raw materials. Older refrigerators were built to last using high quality metals and parts that were meant to be repaired and reused.
Newer budget-friendly models may use more plastics and electronics that aren’t made to last decades. They also require sophisticated computerized manufacturing systems to produce. According to one lifecycle assessment, the production phase of a new refrigerator accounts for 15-20% of its lifetime carbon footprint.
Key Differences in Manufacturing Impact
- Old refrigerators were built with quality metals and standard parts designed for repair. Their production had a lower environmental impact.
- New refrigerators require more complex manufacturing and materials. Their production has a higher carbon footprint.
So when you prematurely replace an existing refrigerator, all those raw materials and production emissions start over again. This effect is multiplied each time someone upgrades to the latest model.
Lifespan of Old vs New Refrigerators
Another factor to consider is how long new energy efficient refrigerators actually last compared to older models. Many people expect a new fridge to last 10-15 years. But thanks to advances in manufacturing and plastics, lifespans have decreased significantly.
- Old 1950s refrigerators often lasted 25-30 years.
- Today’s refrigerators average just 13 years before needing replacement.
So when you replace an older fridge, the new one may need to be replaced twice as often. This means starting over earlier with the impacts of manufacturing and disposal twice as frequently.
Key Differences in Lifespans
- Older refrigerators from mid 20th century lasted 25-30 years.
- New refrigerators today last an average of 13 years.
Shorter lifespans mean more frequent replacement and higher lifetime environmental impacts.
Efficiency Savings of New vs Maintained Old Refrigerators
Of course, the main motivation for upgrading refrigerators is the energy savings from newer efficient models. But well maintained older refrigerators may not use as much additional energy as you’d expect.
According to energy use tests by the Natural Resources Defense Council, a mid-1990s 18 cubic foot refrigerator used an average of 1,147 kWh/year. When compared to a new Energy Star model of the same size which used about 450 kWh/year, the savings were significant.
However, advances in refrigerants and proper maintenance can greatly improve an old fridge’s efficiency. Simply adjusting the temperature setting, replacing worn door gaskets, and cleaning the condenser coils can reduce electricity usage by up to 30%.
Many old refrigerators from the 1960-80s used no more than 750 kWh/year when properly maintained. So the efficiency difference between a well maintained old fridge and a brand new one may only be 300 kWh/year.
Key Points on Efficiency
- New Energy Star refrigerators use ~450 kWh/year.
- Older models may use 750-1150 kWh/year depending on age and maintenance.
- Proper maintenance can reduce an old fridge’s usage by 30%.
While new refrigerators are still more efficient, the savings difference may not be as substantial as you might assume.
Weighing the True Environmental Costs
When considering all these factors together:
- Manufacturing impacts
- Product lifespan
- Efficiency usage over time
The true net environmental costs become complex. By prematurely retiring an existing working refrigerator, you may be resetting the clock on those manufacturing impacts. Even though new fridges use less electricity, shorter lifespans means you pay those impacts more frequently.
There is no definitive answer, and much depends on the specific appliances being compared. But in many cases, the greener option may be to maintain your old refrigerator as long as possible before replacing it. With proper care and maintenance, your old fridge could still have years of life left in it and may be less detrimental to the planet than contributing to more production of new appliances.
Questions to Ask Yourself
If you’re trying to decide between a new refrigerator or keeping your old one, here are some important questions to consider:
- How old is your current refrigerator and what condition is it in?
- Could maintenance and adjustments improve its efficiency?
- What is its kWh/year electricity usage compared to a new model?
- How long could it reasonably continue functioning if maintained?
- Is it using any dangerous refrigerants that need updated?
The Best Choice Depends on Your Specific Situation
There is no universal answer for everyone on whether it’s better to buy a new energy efficient refrigerator or continue using an older working one. The best environmental choice depends entirely on your specific situation. The most sustainable option is to use appliances as long as possible while maintaining maximum efficiency and safety.