Counter Measures

By Christy Harrison

Your produce may be organic and local, and you may buy nonpolluting household cleaners, but odds are your kitchen is still an environmental disaster. Most cabinets, counters, and floors are made from eco-unfriendly materials, which can release toxic fumes (in addition to the ones you’re probably creating by microwaving your Tupperware). Refrigerating food, washing dishes, and lighting your kitchen can also use huge amounts of energy if done improperly. Never fear: We’ve rounded up 10 tips for keeping your kitchen green.

1. Stock your fridge.
It may seem counterintuitive, but a full refrigerator uses less energy than an empty one: Every time you open and close the door, the fridge has to kick in to reregulate its temperature. If there’s food in there already, there’s less outside air introduced, therefore less outside air that needs to be cooled. So if you’re the kind of person who just has some milk and a jar of peanut butter in your refrigerator, the California Energy Commission suggests that you take up the extra space with water-filled containers. Just don’t stuff it to the gills, or the air inside won’t be able to circulate (a good rule of thumb is to leave an inch or two of space between your food and the walls of the fridge). And don’t ever refrigerate uncovered food: Not only does it make it taste gross, but it also humidifies the air in your fridge and makes the motor work harder.

2. Buy a dishwasher.
You’ll save 37 percent more water than if you did the dishes by hand using a continuous stream of water, according to a study by the California Energy Commission. That is, if you follow these rules: Only use a washer that is less than 10 years old; turn off the heat-drying option; run the washer only when it’s full; and don’t prerinse in the sink. We’ve put together some recommended models.

3. Consider microwaving.
On average, you’ll reduce your energy consumption by two-thirds if you cook stuff in the microwave rather than in the stove (even if yours is gas). It’s not a good idea, for many reasons, to eat only microwaveable meals, but if you’re reheating leftovers—especially small amounts—microwaves are much more efficient than the stovetop. You’ll also help keep the kitchen cooler, which is a bonus in hot summer months. Slow cookers are an efficient choice, too, but they generally don’t compare to the microwave. What about the radiation? Nobody knows for sure, but most experts say you’ll be fine if you don’t stand too close to the appliance as it nukes your food.

4. Go hoodless.
Range hoods or exhaust fans can be helpful for kitchen ventilation, but they’re dangerous if used incorrectly or if it’s not sized properly for your space. The average kitchen only needs a hood that sucks out 100 cubic feet per minute; in most spaces, any fan more powerful can cause excessive depressurization, potentially filling your kitchen with carbon monoxide, mold, soot, or other nasty pollutants. The same effect can occur if the vent is blocked with grease and dust, so have it cleaned regularly.

5. Choose the right pans.
Using glass or ceramic baking pans helps conserve energy: They warm up more quickly and retain heat longer than metal pans, so you can lower the oven temperature by 25 degrees. Foods will cook just as quickly as they would in the original recipe. (If you’re baking a cake, though, you’ll probably be better off with metal.)

6. Don’t dump grease.
Most people know better than to dump bacon grease down the drain, but in fact any fat—even seemingly innocent ones like olive oil—can damage your pipes, the sewer system, and the environment. Sure, you may wash your cooking grease down the drain with plenty of soap, but it will inevitably cool and harden. Over time, grease buildup can block your pipes and cause sewage to back up into your home (or someone else’s). Wait until your pans cool a bit, then pour any excess fats into a disposable container and throw it in the trash once you’ve filled it.

7. Cook with natural nonstick.
Most nonstick cookware these days is coated with Teflon, which contains chemicals that the EPA considers likely human carcinogens. When these chemicals are manufactured, they end up in the water supply and in our bloodstreams; cooking with Teflon has also been shown to kill pet birds. Cast iron is a great alternative, providing precise temperature control and good browning; but when it’s a gentler, more radiant heat you’re after, try soapstone cookware and bakeware. It can withstand extremely high temperatures, so it’s suitable for making pizza.

8. Separate your fridge and stove.
Sure, your kitchen may be small, giving you limited choices of where to put stuff. But certain room arrangements can actually generate toxic gases—storing plasticware too close to the oven, for example (as mentioned earlier, heating plastic releases harmful fumes). And it’s best to keep your refrigerator and stove separated by at least a foot or two, because the extra heat near the fridge causes it to work harder.

9. Build with recycled materials.
Many conventional building materials, like PVC, paint, and particle board, release volatile organic chemicals (VOCs), formaldehyde, or other noxious agents. Fortunately, there are plenty of nontoxic choices for the kitchen (and they won’t break the bank). Many companies now make low-VOC paints, including the popular, mainstream Sherwin-Williams. For flooring, try glueless interlocking cork tiles or bamboo. Make sure that it is not finished or manufactured with toxic materials. Don’t go ripping out that linoleum, though: All true linoleum is made from eco-friendly linseed oil, a.k.a. flax oil, which is where it gets its name. (Some sheet flooring can look like linoleum but actually be made from chemical-releasing PVC; ask a contractor or interior designer to take a look if you’re not sure you’ve got the real thing.) For cabinets, try wood made from wheat straw; countertops can be redone with paper-based tiles or recycled terra cotta (though most nonrecycled terra cotta is environmentally friendly if it has a lead-free glaze).

10. Use natural light.
Even the greenest cabinets and countertops can cause unintended environmental consequences if they’re the wrong color: Dark wood and stone suck up light, which means you’ll be more likely to flip on the overhead lighting or install higher-wattage bulbs, using extra electricity. Choose light-colored materials—if your kitchen has a window, you’ll be able to see by its natural light for most of the day. And when you do have to use artificial illumination, it will appear brighter, reducing eye strain.