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The eco-kitchen

(article, Nancy Schatz Alton)

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My friends think of me as a green gal, especially when we’re talking about the heart of the home. My refrigerator is stocked with vegetables from “my” farm, a local CSA that happens to be one of country’s oldest. I usually buy organic food, and I seldom buy paper towels. Even the kitchen floor — a wonderful swirly red Marmoleum — is eco-friendly.

But sometimes my kitchen is surely less green than brown. I occasionally cave to my husband’s love of paper towels, buying a roll now and then. And I’ve been known to preheat the oven — an old electric beast — a full 30 minutes before the chicken is ready for roasting. 

Once in a while — say, around New Year's, when everybody's trying to clean up, clean out, and generally spiff up their lives — I dream of a brand-new kitchen that’s as green as you can get. Until then, however, here’s a primer on making your current kitchen as ecologically sound as possible, from using your appliances more efficiently to cleaning with earth-friendly products. 

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="How green is your kitchen?"]

h3. Energy drains

h4. The refrigerator

A home’s heating and cooling devices are its biggest energy drains, and kitchen appliances suck up roughly 30 percent of household energy usage. The number-one culprit is the refrigerator. 

“If you bought your refrigerator before 2001, it’s really inefficient,” says Solvie Karlstrom, the assistant editor of National Geographic’s green consumer publication the Green Guide.

If you can afford to replace one kitchen appliance, the refrigerator is your best bet, says LEED-accredited architect Kathleen Smith, who co-wrote The Northwest Green Home Primer. “It can improve your quality of life. You can hear \[old refrigerators\] all day. With a new one, a sense of peace sets in.”

To keep your current cold-storage unit running at its optimum energy level, Karlstrom recommends that you:

 Keep the refrigerator between 37 and 40 degrees and the freezer at 5 degrees. Check the fridge temperature by putting a glass of water with a thermometer on the middle shelf and leaving it there for 24 hours.
 Crowd your freezer with food, then raise the temperature a degree or two. The frozen foods will cool each other.
 Don’t use the fridge top for storage. This blocks air circulation, forcing the compressor to work harder. 
 Cover your food. Liquids evaporate, which causes the compressor to do more work. And let foods cool down before you refrigerate them.
 Check the door seal. Place a dollar bill near the seal and shut the door. If it doesn’t stay in place, call a refrigerator repair service to replace your seals.
 Pull your refrigerator out from the wall once a year and vacuum the coils.

h4. The oven/stove

Once I haul food out of the fridge, it usually heads for the stovetop or oven. But Karlstrom says I should retain my summer cooking mindset — that is, cooking as little as possible — all year long. 

“If you skip using your oven two times every week, you’ll save 230 pounds of CO2 a year,” she says. 

Tips to keep in mind when cooking on the stovetop or in the oven:

 Keep the oven door closed. Energy escapes each time you open it, increasing cooking time.
 Use the correct size burner for the pot.
 Defrost food before cooking it.
 Put lids on pots.
 Turn off the burner or the oven before you finish cooking. Residual heat — even on a gas burner — will finish the cooking process. 

Despite what most recipes tell you, says food writer Jess Thomson, preheating the oven isn’t always necessary. Thomson doesn’t preheat her oven when something needs to bake for a long time and has a “done” point that’s relatively flexible — for example, bacon, roasted garlic, beets, or baked potatoes. 

“But it’s definitely not OK to skip preheating when baking \[cakes or breads\], because the rate at which different ingredients melt/interact is crucial,” Thomson adds. “Also, anything that cooks quickly requires a preheated oven. If you want to finish a steak at 400 degrees for five minutes, you’re depending on the oven be a certain temperature to cook it correctly.” 

Figure out how long your oven takes to preheat, so you don’t waste energy keeping it hot. Thomson’s oven, for example, only takes 10 minutes to preheat, so she avoids turning it on until the last possible moment.

h4. Natural gas versus electric power

Because my electric oven seems to be almost as old as I am, I sometimes debate replacing it, wondering if gas would be a greener option. Gas versus electric, of course, is  a hotly debated topic. 

“On a basic level, gas does the job with less energy. It can provide instant heat and greater control over the level of heat, especially if you are using a newer gas stove with an electronic ignition which uses about 40 percent less gas than stoves with a pilot light,” says architect Smith. “But a key question is where you are actually getting your energy from.” 

Natural gas is a non-renewable fossil fuel. Much of the electricity in the U.S. comes from coal-powered plants, but this depends on the region where you live; the East Coast and the Midwest are more likely to have coal-plant power. 

“The positive side of having an electric stove is that you might have the option of getting your energy from a renewable source,” says Smith. Check with your local power company for green power buying options.

h4. Small appliances

Frankly, I’ll probably stick with my old electric range until it dies. Besides, smaller appliances — such as microwaves and toaster ovens — are the best way to avoid using my energy-sucking stove. 

Heating food in the microwave uses two-thirds less energy than using an oven, says editor Karlstrom. Still, I often reheat leftovers on the stovetop just because they taste better than food warmed in my microwave. Timing is usually what pushes me to open the microwave door: it’s the quickest way of heating food and therefore stopping the screaming of my hungry youngsters. 

If I had more counter space, I’d cram a toaster oven alongside the microwave. Karlstrom says that using one is twice as efficient as turning on my stove. 

Cooking with a pressure cooker can lessen cooking time and energy by up to 70 percent, according to Fagor Pressure Cookers. “I know some people are afraid of them, but I recommend reading the best book ever \[for this\]: [%bookLink code=978-0688088149 "Cooking Under Pressure"], by Lorna Sass,” says Goldie Caughlan, the nutrition educator for Seattle-based PCC Natural Markets. “When my kids were little, I kept two pressure cookers, which are so useful for grains and beans and chicken and pot roast.”

Caughlan also uses bamboo stacking steamers to cook on her stovetop. “You heat water in your wok, and place two or three stacked steamers, with beets on the bottom and greens on the top, for example,” she says. 

Of course, there are countless products on the marketplace that supposedly will save you time and energy. “People should seriously ask, ‘What is an essential item versus what becomes a gadget?’” says Smith. “Ask, ‘What recipes am I going to make in \[the new item\] and how often am I going to make it?’ If you are going to use it only a couple of times a year or even once a month, it’s not worth it. It’s taking up space, and there is a body of energy used in having it manufactured.”

h3. Cleaning tips

h4. Dishwashing

All this talk of cooking naturally leads to cleaning. Should I wash that dirty pressure cooker in the sink or the dishwasher? Until six years ago, dishwashers made in the U.S. didn’t have a water-rinse rating, says Maggie Wood, a Long-Island based architect, green designer, and lifestyle consultant. (The federal government’s Energy Star rating system now rates energy and water usage on appliances.) So even my fairly new KitchenAid dishwasher might be a water guzzler.

A study done at the University of Bonn in Germany claims that using the dishwasher instead of hand washing uses half the energy and one-sixth the water, in addition to less soap. To use your dishwasher efficiently, Green Guide editor Karlstrom recommends that you:

 Don’t pre-rinse your dishes before loading, as this can add 20 gallons of water usage to one load. 
 Completely load your dishwasher.
 Run it on the light or normal cycle.
 Don’t use the drying function; let dishes air-dry.
 Use a phosphate-free dishwashing detergent; try products from Seventh Generation, Ecover, or Method. Phosphates, which cause water pollution, can end up in lakes and rivers.

I often find myself washing dishes in the sink instead of the dishwasher, camping-style: with a big bowl partly filled with hot, soapy water. I only turn the water on after I have scrubbed the dishes, rinsing as quickly as possible. 
To save more water, Smith screwed a $5 flip aerator, available at most hardware stores, on the end of her kitchen faucet. She adjusts the water to the ideal dishwashing temperature, then flips the aerator’s lever up to stop the flow of water in an instant. She turns the water back on by flipping the aerator lever down.

h4. Non-toxic cleansers

Using your appliances efficiently and monitoring your water usage will make your kitchen greener, but cleaning your kitchen with environmentally friendly products will also lessen indoor air pollutants. Read the labels of your current cleaners: Do the words “caution,” “warning,” or “danger” appear? According to the Washington Toxics Coalition, two of the most dangerous kitchen cleansers are drain and oven cleaners.

[%image danger float=right width=400 caption='Watch out for cleaning products labeled "Danger."']

“Products labeled DANGER or POISON are the most hazardous. Those labeled CAUTION or WARNING pose a medium hazard,” warns the coalition’s website. “Products with no signal word are not considered hazardous by the federal government. This does not mean they are entirely free of hazardous chemical ingredients, but the amounts are considered too low to be of concern . . . If you are not comfortable with the hazard described on the label, buy another product instead.” (Find out how to dispose of toxic cleaners in your community at Earth 911.) 

Some cleaning-product labels tout their antimicrobial or antibacterial abilities. An antimicrobial kills or inhibits bacteria, viruses, or molds, while antibacterial products are only effective against bacteria. Maria Mergel, a research and education associate with the toxics coalition, says the question to ask is, “Do we need to worry about these germs?”

Bad household bugs are most likely to be found in the kitchen, but Mergel says we only need to be fastidious cleaners when working with raw meats. Use a separate cutting board for meats. Washing the cutting board in the dishwasher is great, but unnecessary.

“Really hot water and lots of soap will clean it as well,” says Mergel. “After I cut meat, I wipe down my countertops and make sure no raw meat is in contact with anything. Soap and water is good enough for cleaning up.”

This simple advice carries over when talking about cleaning the kitchen in general. “The average consumer is really expecting that faint wisp of chlorine or Lysol or one of those other commercial brands they have been acculturated to,” says food educator Caughlan. “Elbow grease and soap and water are very adequate.”

Lysol and chlorine bleach, in fact, are pesticides, which means the Environmental Protection Agency regulates them. And triclosan, an ingredient used in many antimicrobial products, has structural similarities to a toxic pesticide and is also toxic once it breaks down, says Mergel, so it’s something that probably shouldn’t be used around the home.


h1.Powering down


The Department of Energy claims that 75 percent of the electricity used to power home electronics is consumed when an appliance is just sitting around, plugged into a socket.

So consider unplugging any kitchen appliance with a digital screen or a red light on it, says Green Guide assistant editor Solvie Karlstrom: “Unplugging the microwave and the coffee maker saves 68 pounds of CO2 every year.”

Consider, too, an Isole Power Strip, which uses a motion sensor to cut power to appliances after an area is unoccupied for a certain time. 


What’s a clean freak to do? Look for bio-based or food-based cleaners, says green designer Wood. The Washington Toxics Coalition also has a recommended list of safer cleaning products.

You can also make your own cleaning products. White vinegar cleans and disinfects and can be used for almost every kitchen-cleaning task; for recipes, go to Mizkan’s Vinegar Tips. Wood also uses hydrogen peroxide to disinfect. She buys a bottle of hydrogen peroxide with 3 percent strength at the grocery store, and then mixes a bit with water in a spray bottle. (For fragrance, you can add thyme or rosemary oil.) 

The toxics coalition also has plenty of advice on making your own cleaners. And the EZ Clean Green kit comes with a spray bottle, squeeze bottle, baking soda, and dried vinegar. 

Finally, Wood recommends cleaning with washcloths instead of sponges. “It’s what my grandmother always used. You can clean a lot better with washcloths, and then you toss them in the washer,” she says. “Sponges harbor all sorts of germs and bacteria.”

If you find sponges essential, look for ones made from plant-derived cellulose, says the Green Guide, as most sponges are made from petroleum. 

Personally, I’m addicted to cleaning with the brightly colored washcloths I buy at Target. And while my husband still craves the clean scent of Lysol, I don’t miss it at all. 

Once I buy that toaster oven, perhaps I’ll be truly green inside and out — at least within the four walls of my yellow kitchen.

p(bio). Nancy Schatz Alton is a freelance writer and editor in Seattle, Washington.

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