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Are Microwaves Really as Bad for the Environment as Cars?

According to many headlines blared around the Internet this week, "microwaves are as damaging to the environment as cars." But this misleading information, based on a new study from the University of Manchester, hopefully doesn't make you feel guilty about zapping your next Hot Pocket.

The research, published in the journal Science of the Total Environment, found that microwave ovens across the European Union generate as much carbon dioxide as nearly 7 million cars and consume an estimated 9.4 terawatts per hour of electricity per year. Okay, that sounds like a lot. But also consider that there are about 130 million microwaves in Europe and some 291 million vehicles on its roads.


David Reay, professor of carbon management at the University of Edinburgh who was not involved in the study, pointed out to the Guardian that the emissions from microwaves are "dwarfed by those from cars."

"There are around 30 million cars in the UK alone and these emit way more than all the emissions from microwaves in the EU," he added. "Latest data show that passenger cars in the UK emitted 69m tonnes of CO2 equivalent in 2015. This is 10 times the amount this new microwave oven study estimates for annual emissions for all the microwave ovens in the whole of the EU."

Microwaves are actually more eco-friendly than conventional ovens. Even a press write up on the new study stated, "An individual microwave uses 573 kilowatt hour (kWh) of electricity over its lifetime of eight years. That is equivalent to the electricity consumed by a 7 watt LED light bulb."

TreeHugger's Lloyd Alter put it blankly, "That, right there, is the silliest comparison ever, and says it all—an oven uses in eight years what an LED bulb uses in nine, or 1.14 times the power consumption of an LED bulb. This is killing the planet?"

"Almost everything we do uses power, and you can multiply it out and find that when you have a lot of people, it uses a lot of power. Using this logic, I expect that my electric toothbrush is killing the planet," Alter quipped.

The bigger picture, and perhaps the point of the study, is the environmental footprint of our consumeristic, throwaway culture. A microwave's life cycle, aka from "cradle to grave," has decreased from around 10 to 15 years in the late 90s to between six to eight years today, the press release said.

Additionally, many modern day conveniences—from vacuum cleaners to hair dryers and, yes, our beloved microwave—should be designed and used more efficiently.

Importantly, as the authors of the study noted, our everyday appliances run off of polluting fossil fuels, rather than, say, renewables.

"Electricity consumption has the biggest impact," the study's lead author Alejandro Gallego-Schmid, a research associate at the University of Manchester, told AFP. "This is because of the fuels used to generate the electricity."

The AFP reported that coal and gas account for about 70 percent of electricity generation around the world. In the EU, that figure is about 40 percent.

The researchers suggested that manufacturers and individual action can do a lot to reduce the environmental impact of our kitchen gadgets.

"On average, kettles boil 50 percent more water than people need," Gallego-Schmid said. "There are about 144 million kettles in the European Union. The environmental impacts—and the margin for improvement—is huge."

Similarly, most people operate microwaves longer than needed to heat or cook food, he added.

The study is the first to analyze the environmental impacts of microwaves by considering their whole life cycle.

Microwaves were likely considered for the study because they account for the largest percentage of sales of all type of ovens in the European Union, with numbers set to reach nearly 135 million by 2020.

"It is electricity consumption by microwaves that has the biggest impact on the environment," the authors said.

Gallego-Schmid also told the Guardian, "The aim of our study was not to compare microwaves to other cooking appliances but to look at the environmental impacts of microwaves as ubiquitous devices in households in Europe and draw attention to the need to make their design, use and end-of-life waste management more efficient."

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