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Even the government agrees: Replacing old, energy-gobbling appliances with new, efficient, Energy Star–rated versions is a positive goal. The U.S. government offers consumers a rebate to encourage them to get to their local appliance superstore and grab up a new washer and dryer, dishwasher, or water heater.

But the plan may be backfiring on us all. Many consumers use the widespread and easily available information about energy ratings to choose the one that will save the most energy and thus the most money on utility bills. They bring their new refrigerator home, put it in the kitchen—and then move the old one out into the garage for extra refrigerated storage.

Thus, even as the average home refrigerator in the United States uses three-quarters less energy than it did in 1975 (and is 20 percent larger), the number of homes with more than one refrigerator has increased. One reason so many consumers keep their old appliances is their apparent lack of awareness of how much additional energy they are using by keeping those older models plugged in to the wall—even if it is the wall in the basement. The Energy Department has reported that if consumers would unplug their 29.6 secondary units nationwide, they would save 25 million megawatts of electricity, or about $2.8 billion.

There is no bad guy in this energy scenario. Consumers generally want to save energy and money and believe they are doing their parts to live “greener” lives. Many also believe that its better to use old refrigerators than let them be thrown into landfills. Perhaps the best thing to do is to continue developing more and more energy efficient appliances, continue giving consumers the information they need to make informed buying decisions about replacing old appliances, and also educate them more about the hidden costs of continuing to use old units. For this latter goal, we need new and better ways to recycle old units, as well as a means to figure out just how many consumers keep hanging on to their old appliances.

Discussion Questions

1. Do you have an old appliance in your home that you keep using? Why do people keep them? 

2. Should the government continue issues rebates and incentives to get consumers to buy new appliances, considering this information about reusing their old units?

Leora Broydo Vestel, “Consumers Buy More Efficient Refrigerators, but Keep the Old Ones Humming,” The New York Times, March 19, 2010.