Could unplugging your fridge be your next sustainable move?
by Jessica Broadbent
My first thought when my friend Adelaïde told me she didn’t have a fridge was that she must have become vegan. Actually no, my first thought was that she must be waiting for someone to come and repair her fridge… But, it turns out, she really doesn’t own a fridge - and she isn’t vegan either.
I stayed with Adelaïde and her sister Maëlick for a period this summer while in-between jobs; they live in a flat in a small village just outside of Bordeaux, and they love cooking and eating good food. Curiouser and curiouser! Two French women eating everything good that France has to offer: fromage, saucisson, croissants, butter, fresh fruit and vegetables, all without a fridge to hand.
'I came to see that life without a fridge is actually quite doable. Even for my two meat-eating, patisserie-loving, beer-drinking friends...'
When the fridge repairman question was cleared up, my thoughts turned to practicalities. I imagined Adelaïde probably ended up wasting a fair amount of food, having arrived at her house on a day so hot that it was unimaginable that milk or vegetables could last long outside. Then, surely, she was also having to make endless trips to the supermarket in her car? And thus this would all be costing her a lot of money (I am someone who habitually buys in bulk to save money and ends up with giant bags of things proudly blocking up storage space)?
After a few days of observation, I came to see that life without a fridge is actually quite doable. Even for my two meat-eating, patisserie-loving, beer-drinking friends who don’t earn huge amounts. And if it’s possible for them, it’s surely possible for more of us?
It was Maëlick’s initiative to go fridge-less, so I spoke to her about her reasons and experience. She has lived without a fridge for nearly three years now, having been encouraged by her boyfriend’s desire to pull the plug. Their central philosophy is to live life more simply and to detach from consumerism where possible. They are trying to reduce those creature comforts we are taught that we need when we reach adulthood, but that aren’t actually vital.
'...it’s an appliance of which most of us don’t even question the necessity. But perhaps we should.'
It isn’t that strange an idea, either. Not too long ago we all lived without fridges. Like a lot of modern-day household comforts, the trend started in America, and over the past century the original crude ice box has been developed into the sophisticated appliance we know today. Over three decades the fridge saw a meteoric rise from zero to chilly hero in the UK: in 1948 only 2% of British households owned a fridge, rising to 58% in 1970. Now, in my experience, it’s an appliance of which most of us don’t even question the necessity. But perhaps we should.
Our excessive consumerism undoubtedly hurts the planet, and in Maëlick’s eyes unplugging the fridge is one thing she can do to help. When she first tried it, she admits that she was slightly nervous. She was living in a caravan and had no mode of artificially chilling food (a fridge or a freezer), but it soon became part of her way of life. Now she lives in a flat that came with a freezer, but plans to ditch the habit again when she moves out.
'The most important thing is to be organised with your food shopping.'
There are a few practicalities to think about with not having a fridge, but Maëlick assures me it’s really not difficult. The most important thing is to be organised with your food shopping. “You have to change your habits a little,” she says. “You can’t buy a load of fresh dairy produce if you live alone and can’t get through it all in time.” She cooks a lot from scratch, and says it’s important to learn how to cook with the quantities that you have so you: A. use everything up, and B. don’t end up with far too much (unless you are great at getting through leftovers quickly!). If she has a lot of one fresh ingredient, she makes lots of different recipes with it to ensure it doesn’t go off.
You have to move with the seasons, too, and you can’t always have everything you fancy. In summer it’s a little more complicated as you have to protect food well from heat and flies, especially with meat. “You have to accept that in summer there are certain things you can’t eat,” she says. “I love making desserts. Mid-summer you can’t make a chocolate mousse. But it’s not too difficult to renounce the chocolate mousse. You just make other things.” In winter it’s much simpler as most food can be stored outside. I get the impression she makes a fair few chocolate mousses in winter...
She confesses that having a freezer is nice for retaining a few comforts like ice cream, and for keeping meat. Perhaps a freezer is slightly better than a fridge anyway, we muse. After all, you open it much less frequently so it loses less heat and thus uses less energy in constantly re-cooling. Nevertheless, she won’t be keeping it. There are plenty of ways to keep food fresh, like underground and in water (for beer, for example). She keeps her salad leaves dipped in water, and apparently sand is pretty magic for preserving vegetables. And talking of preserving, there’s a whole other world that she is yet to explore in pickling, drying and curing.
'...we have a tendency to overbuy when we have a big fridge to store everything in.'
So, does she go to the supermarket more often? “I buy fresh produce more often, but I don’t go to the supermarket all the time,” she says. I went along to their Saturday market and it has to be said, the choice of amazing local produce in France is incredible. I’ll admit it’s probably easier here to buy super local, fresh, delicious produce which in turn means you don’t have to worry about keeping vast quantities. Maëlick is part of a community garden too, and often brings home something that has just been picked. I remember my local allotment in London had a (literally) 50+ year waiting list, but if you can join an allotment or have your own garden I think that easy access to fresh food helps relinquish the necessity for a fridge. Another big positive of not going to the supermarket if possible is not having to buy much plastic/net/general packaging, as markets tend to be more of a bring-your-own-bag affair.
And does it cost more? No, she finds. She saves money in electricity, but also in shopping. She buys more simple ingredients, and less pre-made food which is normally more expensive. She finds that it costs less to buy in bulk and loose than in plastic packets, though I know often in England that isn’t always the case, especially in city supermarkets. Lastly and undeniably, we have a tendency to overbuy when we have a big fridge to store everything in. Mouldy carrots forgotten at the back of the bottom shelf ring a bell for anyone?!
So, it’s cheaper and means less supermarket shops, but what has been the biggest challenge of living without a fridge? “When you don’t have a fridge or freezer you renounce things like your ice cream, and a good white wine that needs to be served fresh. I like making patisserie - but that’s just a problem in summer. It’s really not vital. You have to cook a little every day, but for me it’s important to eat well so that’s ok.” She comments that she has no children so only has herself to look after, which probably makes things easier.
Lastly, I asked her for her top tips for anyone wanting to try. “Don’t put pressure on yourself to just unplug. Try lessening the contents of your fridge bit by bit first, which will also mean you open it less often. Then make sure you have a good base of dried products like rice, lentils, flour, spices, nuts and dried fruit. For all these cooking basics you don’t need a fridge - then you just need to buy your fresh ingredients each week.
'...Maëlick made me rethink the things that are essential and the changes we can make at home to lessen our impact.'
Maëlick also said: “After a while you think differently when you shop. You have to be mindful and can’t buy everything you want, but it gets easier to change your habits. Turning off your fridge really doesn’t have to mean making huge sacrifices in your life, you can still eat most of the things you want.” Her parting words to me were: “It’s possible, don’t be scared about it!”
Living with Maëlick made me rethink the things that are essential and the changes we can make at home to lessen our impact. We consume energy all the time in our homes, often completely thoughtlessly. The good news is that the stats show that energy usage is generally decreasing within the domestic sector in the UK. But that’s really no reason to become complacent in the current climate crisis, as outdoor temperature spikes affect the domestic sector’s use of energy hugely. It’s difficult to switch off something like the heating during winter, particularly if we are unlucky enough to experience a second wave of confinement in our homes. But switching something else off seems a good compromise. Perhaps switching off your fridge could be your next sustainable move?
Jess is a writer currently living in France. After working in marketing and journalism for several years she got itchy feet and has spent the last few years travelling the world, admiring its beauty and bemoaning our lack of consideration for it as human beings. She loves everything to do with the outdoors, food, wine, and - most importantly - cats.