Environment

Your Kitchen Can Be a Planet Killer — 8 Ways You Can Turn It Green

If we’re going to eat more sustainable foods, shouldn't we​ prepare them in more sustainable rooms?

Photo Credit: Thomas Bethge

While you may hear a lot about buying locally grown and organic foods, eco-friendly food preparation, green detergents, and non-toxic cleaning products, not much is written about greening the kitchen itself. And yet, as a society we consider the kitchen to be sacred, and collectively we spend more money remodeling this room than any other in the house.

Fortunately, making green choices for your kitchen is as good for the pocket as it is for the planet. And while it may be argued that keeping kitchen you have might be your greenest option, here are some things to consider whether you’re buying new appliances, remodeling, or simply trying to reduce the carbon footprint in your cookery.

1. Buy eco-friendly countertops. If you need to replace your countertops, look into renewable sources such as bamboo and hemp, which should cost between $90-$130 a square foot. Another interesting—and visually striking—eco-friendly countertop material is Icestone, which is made from recycled glass and colored concrete. It costs about $75 a square foot. By comparison, marble and granite countertops, two high-end countertop choices popular with consumers cost between $125-$250. Cheap laminate countertops cost some $20-$50 per square foot.

You may also want to consider using wooden planks or countertops salvaged from old homes. Non-profit organizations—mostly found in urban areas— dismantle abandoned homes, recycle the materials and resell them for low prices at “rehab stores.” Habitat for Humanity, a non-profit that builds and rehabilitates affordable homes, has hundreds of such stores across the country, which they call "ReStores."

2. Use reclaimed cabinets.When redesigning your kitchen, look at salvaging used cabinets or using furniture elements such as antique Hoosier cabinets for your storage needs. Appropriate hanging and sink cabinets, however, might not be so easy to find as it could be hard to locate ones that fit your needs or your kitchen’s dimensions. Check out home rehab stores for used cabinets. Antique shops, freecycling organizations, Craigslist, and estate sales are good places to find freestanding cabinets and hutches.

New or used, you get what you pay for when it comes to wood products. Cabinetry and furniture made from cheap pine or particle board won't hold up nearly as well as oak, maple, walnut, and cherry. While looking at cabinets, pay close attention to joint construction. Anything constructed with staples or nails, or visible glue indicates cheap construction. Look for dowels, screws, dovetail joints, and reinforcement blocks at corners.

3. Buy the right cookware. While it may be tempting to buy inexpensive, non-stick cookware (like Teflon) there are many legitimate health concerns regarding such cooking surfaces. Moreover, most of the cheap cookware you find at department stores is really not built to last, and will end up in a landfill much sooner than later.  

Instead, consider cookware that has stood the test of time. Iron and stainless steel cookware are practically indestructible, and you can save a lot of money buying them used.

Cast iron cookware, when properly seasoned (lightly oiled and baked), can be pretty close to non-stick and iron also holds heat quite well, meaning you could use less energy to cook your food.

Stainless steel is also a good bet, but buying this type of cookware can be a little trickier. It is also pricier than cast iron. The best stainless steel cookware has slick cooking surfaces, even more so than seasoned iron. When shopping, consider only stainless steel cookware that has riveted handles and an aluminum or copper core to help with even heat distribution.

Enamel cookware encases the iron base metal with a coating of porcelain (which is powdered glass melted and baked on top of the metal). While enamel cookware is typically easy to care for, it will likely be your most expensive option. It also doesn’t have the non-stick qualities of bare iron or stainless steel cookware so it’s not very good for cooking eggs. However, enameled cookware is considered better for acidic dishes, soups, and sauces, as there’s no metal surfaces to chemically react with the food. Another advantage of enamel is that it won’t hold flavors, like fish, the way that cast iron does.

Unfortunately, some enamel cookware out there is cheap and the porcelain chips easily, and some imported enameled cookware has been known to have lead or other toxic compounds in the pan or coating. So, it’s probably best to look for well-respected brand names like Le Creuset, Le Chasseur, and Staub when buying new or used enamel cookware.

4. Buy used dishware and utensils.There's nothing wrong with buying utensils and dishes used, especially if you can find them in matching sets. Thrift stores and estate sales are often the best places to look. Be careful to examine any utensils and dishes for cracks, chips, and missing enamel. China and glassware may also have invisible stresses that could become cracks.

Stainless steel flatware is a more attractive option than silverware, especially if the silverware has lost its plate. While the base metal for silverware is often copper or brass, a tin-alloy base used in some silverware may pose health risks. Also, be sure any plastic dishes or utensils you buy do not contain chemicals such as melamine resin and Bisphenol-A, which may pose health risks.

5. Get an energy-efficient refrigerator.The greenest thing you can do in the kitchen is to reduce your energy use, and knowing which refrigerator to buy goes a long way in reducing your carbon footprint. When shopping for refrigerators, look for the ones that are Energy Star Rated, as not all are. Check out the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) website for energy-efficiency ratings for household appliances.

As people tend to hang on to refrigerators for decades and the appliance’s efficiency is likely to degrade over time due to wear, it is almost always best to buy a refrigerator new. Moreover, modern refrigerators are much more efficient than they were decades ago. Compared to the refrigerators of the 1970s, today's refrigerators save U.S. consumers some $20 billion per year in energy costs, or about $150 per year for the average American family. Even better, 2014 marks the first year of even tougher efficiency standards for refrigerators and the new products are now in the stores.

The U.S. Energy Department says that these new efficiency standards will save the nation almost four and a half quadrillion BTUs over 30 years. That’s three times more than the total energy currently used by all refrigeration products in U.S. homes annually. That amount of energy could also power a third of the African continent for an entire year.

6. Get a gas range (if you can). A majority of U.S. households use electric ranges. This is true, in part, because some regions and communities don’t have a natural gas infrastructure. Still, many households that can use gas ranges have electric ones instead.

But there are a lot of advantages to natural gas. For beginners, most cooks prefer using natural gas because temperatures are easier to control and they don’t have to wait for electric coils to warm up. Also, gas is some three times more energy efficient than a comparable electrical range. And, according to the California Energy Commission, cooking with gas will cost you less than half as much to operate if your stove has a modern electronic ignition. And although cooking with gas means using a fossil fuel to do so, remember that most electricity in the U.S. still comes from coal and natural-gas burning power plants.

Whether they’re electric or gas, ranges take a great amount of energy and natural resources to manufacture, and as long as you’re not buying a used range that was low-end to begin with, you’re not denying yourself anything by getting one second hand. In fact, you can even find gas ranges from upscale brands such as Viking, Wolf, and Miele at much lower prices than you would if you purchased them new, and you probably wouldn’t notice the difference once you got one home.

7. Stop washing dishes in the sink. Don’t think that you’re being green by scrimping and not getting a dishwasher. Many people have a misguided belief that washing dishes by hand is more efficient and uses less water, but studies have shown that the carbon footprint of using a dishwasher is less than washing in the sink.

The average dishwasher uses six gallons of water per cycle for a full-load of dishes, while Energy Star efficient models use four gallons or less. A line of smart dishwashers by Bosch can use even less water, thanks to new sensor technology that can customize the amount of water to the contents in the machine.

By comparison, hand washing is inefficient: The average faucet flows at two gallons of water per minute. So, you would have to be able to wash and rinse the equivalent of a full load of dishes, utensils, pots, and pans using two minutes or less running water to make washing in the sink as efficient as a basic Energy Star dishwasher.

And even when factoring in the electricity used by the dishwasher compared to that of the hot-water heater needed for hand washing, the overall carbon footprint is very likely to be less when using a dishwasher.

8. Use fewer (and better) paper towels. Another “green” debate in the kitchen is whether paper towels or cloth towels are more eco friendly. Of course, this may depend more on how you would use cloth towels more than anything else. If you’re the type to use them once before tossing them into the washer, then cloth towels might not be for you, as washing and drying many of them is, in fact, energy intensive. Also, if you live in an area where you’re being asked to ration water, you might find it frivolous to rinse a cloth towel between each use or to dedicate so much water and energy to washing and drying them.

But as much as we may debate the pros and cons of paper versus cloth, consider all of the energy-intensive steps in manufacturing paper towels, including material acquisition, processing, bleaching, packaging, and transportation. All of this happens for a product that’s used just once, discarded, and dumped in a landfill with millions of other paper towels; there’s something almost immoral about this wastefulness.

Overall, utilizing cloth towels should be your default—by rinsing and reusing them when appropriate. Along with them, paper towels should be bought and used conscientiously. Always look for towels with a high percentage of recycled content and for those that allow you to tear off smaller portions if needed. But beware of other “green” claims made for paper towel brands. They may be dubious as there are no government regulations for their marketing statements. One green brand however, Seventh Generation, makes towels are notably greener as they can be torn into those smaller portions and are entirely made of recycled paper.

Cliff Weathers is a former senior editor at AlterNet and served as a deputy editor at Consumer Reports. Twitter @cliffweathers.

 

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