How fridges make us waste food

How do fridges increase food waste?

Look at that unassuming white box in your kitchen. What would you ever do without it? The cool saviour of your leftover pizza, the treasure chest of treats, the preserver of your daily nourishment.

Yet your fridge may be hindering your efforts to reduce food waste.

Fridges were initially designed to prevent food waste by making it last longer, but they can authorise and dictate wasteful behaviour too. During my masters project, I found out that the fridge influences food waste in a number of ways. This is a lot to do with our own behaviour, but the fridge’s shape and design is a very prominent factor.

The fridge was born

It may surprise you to know that fridges were not built to be as user-friendly as possible. The shape and design of fridges has hardly evolved at all beyond its first conceptions in the early 20th century. What we have now is updated version of the original cold, upright box.

January Jones as Betty Draper in ‘Mad Men’ (Lionsgate) – the fridge in the 1960s is almost identical to the ones we have now

The reason for this is because the main competition around fridge manufacture was not about what it should look like, but how it would be powered; namely, through absorption or compression. Two rival companies, General Electric and Servel, slogged it out for years, with General Electric coming out trumps. But user interface was not part of that competition, and the two companies did not submit other designs or shapes to the marketplace of ideas. They were fighting over how to run this cold, upright box, not whether it should be a cold, upright box to begin with.

In her extensive summary of the history of the fridge, Cowan Schwartz (1983) emphasises that:

‘We have compression, rather than absorption, refrigerators in the United States today not because one was technically better than the other, and not even because consumers preferred one machine (in the abstract) over the other, but because General Electric […] were very large, very powerful, very aggressive, and very resourceful companies, while Servel and SORCO were not. Consumer “preference” can only be expressed for whatever is, in fact, available for purchase, and is always tempered by the price and convenience of the goods that are so available.’

Ruth Cowan Schwartz, 1983

As a result, today’s fridges are not best designed to meet the challenges of the 21st century: namely, the climate crisis and the need to reduce food waste. They were designed to make a profit.

So how do fridges influence waste?

What the social scientists say

As soon as fridges entered the scene, they have been influencing our relationship with food and our lifestyles and the more we use them, the more we depend on them (Waitt and Philips, 2016; Warde, 1999; Paddock, 2017). Shove and Southerton (2000) go as far as claiming they ‘script the actions of their users’.

Blichfeldt et al. (2015) consider the fridge as a site of ‘procrastination’: somewhere to put food and wait for it to go off before disposing of it. This idea of ‘interim placing’ means that fridges can become ‘coffins of decay’ (Evans, 2012). Hebrok and Boks (2017) demonstrate the fridge is widely used to allow people to feel better about throwing things away. It is not clear, however, if there are specific areas in the fridge where food is placed to complete this behaviour, and how this could be changed, although Farr-Wharton et al. (2014) highlight that visibility within the fridge plays a significant part of household food waste.

Redesigning fridges was advocated by both Waitt and Philips (2016) and Hebrok and Boks (2017). The latter argue that storing food, including the placement of food in the fridge, ‘has considerable influence on waste’ and suggest that smart solutions, like intelligent fridges, may help in solving this issue. By acknowledging the influencing power of the fridge, it is pertinent that scholars suggest looking at how to better design them to mitigate against waste.

I often talk about ‘system change’, and this is a great example of it: rethinking the objects in our daily lives and how they can be designed to help form a sustainable society. As Farr-Wharton et al. (2014) stipulate, even the most conscious consumer who wants to lead a sustainable lifestyle will still waste food because ‘external factors may prevent them from performing and sustaining such practices’. Finding out what these external factors are is key to understanding how the material world needs to change to help solve the climate emergency.

My research

In two previous blogs I talk about how we perceive ‘waste’ and why we might value some foods over others. These perceptions and values manifest in the way we interact with the fridge. For instance, items we assign higher value tend to be placed at the front. In this way, the fridge allows us to play out our intentional value systems and wasteful behaviours. But it also influences unintentional food waste too, through its shape and design. Deep drawers and shelves mean that food is often out of sight, and even our favourites are accidentally left to mould.

In the following passages, I am using material I gathered in interviews in summer 2019 to illustrate these ideas. I interviewed 10 participants in their homes as they discussed how they use their fridges. Each participant was interviewed twice, one week apart. I took a photo of their fridge both times, and used the images to help initiate conversations.

How the fridge allows us to waste intentionally: placing

Depending on how participants perceived the value of their food, they took greater or lesser care of it in the fridge. For example, Lu* placed a lot of value on the food from her home country. She said as soon as she arrived back in London, she unpacked them all into the fridge, with fresh coriander she loved taking a prominent place on the middle shelf, and some ‘special’ limes got a drawer almost all to themselves.

Although Lu placed food she values carefully in the fridge, the fridge also allowed her to carry out some intentional waste behaviours:

‘I put all these stupid little things I never want to use but have never got around to throwing them out, like this chilli chocolate and all, they all tend to end up at the back.’

The habit of placing items that were used less often or considered lower value at the back of the fridge was extremely prevalent, and more often than not it led to their demise. In our first interview, Helen* pointed out two old soup pots at the back of the fridge and described her habit of buying soup, eating half of it and then pushing it to the back of the fridge where it was forgotten. When I returned for the second interview, both of the old soups were still there. It was an easy space to ignore. In contrast, humous pots, although they moved around the fridge a bit (in the first week it was on the middle shelf, and the second week a new one was on the top shelf), they were placed front and centre and always got eaten.

Both Nicole* and Jan* placed items they use rarely on the top shelf at the back, and Jan admitted ’And then I might even forget it’s there [laughs] I mean, that’s what happens’. Magnus* also arranged his shelf to fit the perceived value of food. In his case, if a food is ‘versatile’ and allows him to be ‘efficient’ it is considered higher value. Accordingly, his eggs and cheese were always at the front of his shelf.

Some ‘treats’ often do not even make it into the fridge at all before being consumed. Amanda* said that if she buys something special to eat, it will usually be prepared that day and will sit on the side until she is ready to use it. When she is at home in the US, her family buys fresh corn from the market ‘which is the most delicious thing you can get in the mid-west’ and is cooked as soon as they arrive home.

Similarly, Jan explained that if she has guests round, she will buy a dessert on the day and may not even use the fridge to store it. Food is given higher value when participants loved eating it, and the fridge was often bypassed altogether, suggesting some foods are above the ‘interim placing’ as described above.

How the fridge allows us to waste intentionally: organising

Some participants took great care in reorganising the fridge if their food was considered high value. Ralph* and Alex* reshuffled the vegetable drawer when they collect veg from their local veg box scheme, so the heavier items go to the bottom to prevent damage of more delicate ones. Alex also explained that they would put an item in a more prominent place if it looked like it needed eating soon.

Victoire* also reorganised her vegetables, though as she had a shelf in her shared fridge rather than a drawer, she uses a different mechanism. She liked placing her vegetables in a big bowl or on a plate on her shelf to imitate a drawer and separates the new vegetables from the old: ‘just put it on a different plate’. She felt particular empathy towards meat and fish, and as a result would put them in ‘a visible place for me so I don’t forget about them’.

Frieda* placed higher value on German meats and cheeses she bought once a month, and they have their own drawer in the fridge. Although when Frieda brought new veg in the house, she would just ‘shove it on top’, when it came to her cold meats, she took a lot more care. She said she reorganised the drawer when she accidentally bought excess ham, so that the ham that was going out of date sooner would be on top and used first. Nicole moved food that needs to be eaten first to the front ‘so I see it when I open the fridge’. In all these cases, foods that were valued more highly were given ‘better’ or more visible placement in the fridge and were less likely to be wasted.

However, this was not always the case. The fridge did not just translate intentional behaviours, it dictated behaviour itself, and some valued foods were accidentally lost to decay as a result.

How the fridge makes us waste unintentionally: size

For one, the size of the fridge influenced the behaviour of participants in several ways. If a fridge was small, it dictated shopping habits: Helen, Amanda and Magnus all recounted that they do ‘top-up shops’ rather than ‘big shops’ due to the spatial constraints of their fridges (also see Ganglbauer et al., 2012). This has implications for waste, as in general more food is disposed when more shopping trips occur (Visschers et al., 2016).

Rathje and Murphy (2001) moreover hypothesise that ‘garbage expands as to fill the receptacles available for its containment’. The larger the trash can, the more trash is created to offer it. It appeared that this theory can be applied to fridges. Both Lu and Frieda had large fridges that stretched from the floor to the ceiling. Lu filled up the entire space, and even then ‘if you gave me a bit more space I’d be even happier’. Frieda had also filled her fridge up, and adds that ‘I could even do with a bit more, one more drawer of vegetables would be ideal’. Ralph alluded to this theory himself when talking about the size of his fridge. He says:

‘when I first saw this fridge, I though “this is not going to fit three people”, and we pretty much, I think you adapt to the size of the fridge […] I honestly think, like, Americans with their giant fridges, I think, fill it with shit which like, they never use, because they can’.

Several participants noted that the sight of an empty fridge looks wrong somehow. In the first interview, Ralph and Alex hadn’t been home from holiday long and the fridge wasn’t as stocked as it usually is, and Ralph said that ‘empty fridges stress me out […] If there’s nothing in the fridge, I’d want to go and like, fill it with stuff.’ Jan had similar feelings, saying ‘I might have bought a bit more than usual this week because the fridge looks so empty’. Although it was not made clear from this study, this behaviour could lead to what Evans (2014) calls a ‘surplus’ whereby more food is bought than actual or perceived need, leading to more waste.

How the fridge makes us waste unintentionally: structure

The way fridges are structured dictates some activity. The depth of the vegetable drawers was often mentioned in the context of creating accidental food waste. In the second interview, Helen remembered she had forgotten a cucumber that had been hidden all week in the bottom of the drawer. She immediately got up to check whether it was still fine to eat and was happy to find it was still very edible. This implies that if the cucumber had gone off, it would have been unintentional and disappointing, rather than because Helen had been using the fridge to ignore the cucumber. Frieda implied that the depth of the drawer leads to a habitual disappointment of finding rotten vegetables:

‘You know, sometimes you find things in the bottom of the vegetable drawer and you’ve forgotten it was there, and then it rots […] it does happen, yeah. Most weeks. That something rots, sadly’.

As most food literature agrees, fruits and vegetables make up the majority of wasted food. Some have argued that this can be explained by ‘good provider syndrome’ (Rathje and Murphy 2001) whereby people buy more food that they consider ‘healthy’ than they actually manage to eat. But these interviews suggest that it could also involve the way produce is stored.

Ralph and Alex’s fridge had a strange feature: an unusually narrow middle shelf that they use for ‘just, like, the stuff that can fit in there’ (see image).

Alex and Ralph’s fridge with the ‘rogue’ shelf

During the second interview, Alex admitted that some nut roast that was gifted to them by a friend went off in this middle area. Although it was in the middle of the fridge, Alex referred to it as ‘rogue’ and explained ‘you literally can’t see [food items] unless you take stuff out’. As a result, the nut roast was forgotten about and went to waste. In this case, the structure of their fridge directly impeded efforts to navigate their food habits effectively.

One particularly frequent feature was the agency of the fridge door in creating unintentional food waste. Although Amanda loved her vegan ranch sauce (‘which is, like, my favourite thing’) it gets forgotten about in its place in the door, and Amanda said that if it were something that would go off quicker, there would be no saving it. In the second interview, Lu indicated with surprise to the compartment in the door: ‘Oh, I didn’t even look at these areas. I’ve forgotten all about them, there’s cold meat down there. That probably hasn’t shifted at all [during the week]’. Magnus explained his view of the door:

‘the fact that it’s on the side, it’s out of the way, so you’re not paying attention to it so much, when you open the fridge. When you open the fridge you’re looking at your shelf and what you’re making or what you’re going to cook’.

It appears that the different compartments of the fridge, whether the door, the deep shelves and drawers and one or two ‘rogue’ areas are hindering our efforts to look after our food properly. Food went off in these areas by accident, and this is an indication that fridges are not designed to make it easy to save food from going to waste.

Fridge in focus: redesigning objects for a sustainable society

In all cases, participants often referred to the fridge as an important member of the household. Some participants implied the fridge was a character in its own right: Lu said she was ‘keeping an eye on it’ because of its unpredictability but it seemed to be ‘behaving itself’ at that moment. Nicole soothed her fridge when it started beeping after the door was left open. She also referred to her old fridge that ‘died a horrible death’. These moments are reminiscent of Latour’s (1992) observation that ‘I constantly talk with my computer, who answers back; I am sure you swear at your old car’.

The fact that participants were speaking of their fridge as if they had human characteristics reaffirms Latour’s argument that more clout should be given to objects when we discuss human activity, and it is a strong argument to look at material  world when finding climate solutions.

Some work has been done in this area, for example smart fridges which can alert you when your food is going off. But there are data security questions around these technologies, and they will also remain expensive and inaccessible for most people for decades to come.

People have started trying to find their own solutions to the unhelpful way fridges are shaped. This Instagram account is dedicated to attractive storage solutions, and there are many more.

In any case, governments and businesses must be creative when devising solutions for the climate emergency, and looking beyond consumer ‘behaviour change’. Unless our society is built on sustainable objects and policies, even the most devoted food waste saviour will fail, because the material realities – like our fridges – are holding us back.

*Names have been changed

Do you recognise some of these behaviours in your daily interaction with the fridge? Have your food waste habits changed over time? Write in with your story!

Published by foodwastestories

The first food waste magazine.

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