Editorial: Milk, Melons, and Smaller Refrigerators

January 01, 2006
January/February 2006
A version of this article appears in the January/February 2006 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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        One seemingly irreversible trend in American homes is the growing refrigerator. This is particularly puzzling because the average household size is shrinking. What do people put in there? We haven’t read the market research to answer that question; however,we can tell you that SUV refrigerators are not necessarily inevitable members of future American households.
        One justification for buying larger refrigerators is the need to store larger volumes of milk (presumably necessary because our shopping expeditions are becoming less frequent and larger). But is storing so much milk necessary? In Europe, most of the milk sold in grocery stores is ultra-high pasteurized.This milk can be safely stored at room temperature for several months. The typical European refrigerator holds only open milk containers plus any milk needed in the next few hours. A gallon in the fridge will probably be sufficient for 99% of American households. And ultra-pasteurized milk is typically cheaper than fresh milk, because stores need less refrigeration space for it and shipping would be cheaper without refrigerated trucks.
        So why isn’t ultra-pasteurized milk widely available in the United States? Some people say that ultra-pasteurized milk tastes different than plain pasteurized milk and that Americans don’t like it. I agree that the taste is (very slightly) different, but it’s not disagreeable. Besides, there are all sorts of milk flavors around,including organic, skim, low fat, and so on. Surely some people would prefer ultrapasteurized milk. Other people blame the dairy lobby—which vigorously defends local milk production—for the lack of ultra-pasteurized milk, which could travel from far away without the need for refrigeration. I don’t know if this is true.
        Another argument for large refrigerators is to store unusually large or oddsize foods. Watermelons are a classic example.Recently,however, agronomists created a new variety of melons customtailored to fit inside smaller refrigerators. If these melons become popular—no word about how they taste—then there’s one less justification for a huge refrigerator. (Turkeys and 64-ounce drinks may still be a problem.)
        One can imagine that after a few more innovations, like ultra-pasteurized milk and small melons, the urgency to buy a large refrigerator will diminish. Perhaps smaller refrigerators will become popular again.
        Why discuss smaller melons in Home Energy? Because smaller refrigerators translate into lower energy use. To be sure, manufacturers have made large refrigerators remarkably efficient (putting the auto manufacturers to shame in the process), but there’s still an inescapable positive relationship between a refrigerator’s surface area and heat gain. The combination of changing demographics, tastes, and the price of energy could favor smaller refrigerators.
        Similar trends can appear in unexpected places. Two reasons dictate when people decide to clean clothes: the clothes are dirty or the clothes are smelly. If clothes were made more resistant to becoming smelly, then people might not wash clothes so often—nobody wants to do laundry—thereby saving water, energy, and detergent. That’s why new odor-resisting fabrics deserve watching (and smelling). If they deliver on odor prevention, then they will probably deliver on energy conservation, too.

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