It’s often said that the kitchen is the heart of the home. And if you’re looking to live with a lighter footprint, this beyond-busy room also presents plenty of opportunities for living more sustainably.
One key principle of sustainable design is not to use more resources or space than you absolutely need. “Keep it small,” advises Larissa Swayze, the sustainable design blogger at Of Houses and Trees. “Even if you’re doing a remodel of a large kitchen space, you don’t necessarily have to put in a new massive island or floor-to-ceiling cabinets.”
Ready for your own kitchen makeover? Here are some ideas to get the zero-waste space of your dreams.
Opt for an induction range or an electric range instead of a gas- or propane-powered stove.
“My biggest culprit in the kitchen is fossil fuels, as is most of the country’s,” says Eric Carbonnier, Ph.D., who, in addition to working as a commercial architect with HMC Architects, is building his own sustainable home in Southern California.
There are three general types of stove: a gas or propane stove, an electric stove or an induction stove. (If you are really … retro … you might have a coal-burning stove.)
Natural gas and propane are both fossil fuels, and both release carbon monoxide, formaldehyde and other air pollutants in the home. The elevated levels of nitrogen dioxide released from gas stoves in particular may lead to respiratory illnesses like asthma, the Rocky Mountain Institute warns. And from an environmental perspective, natural gas must be extracted from our environment and then processed before it is sold.
Fortunately, other possibilities for your zero-waste kitchen abound. An electric range (i.e., a stove that relies on electricity) has a lower carbon footprint than gas, especially when the electricity is sourced from renewable energy like solar or wind power.
However, Carbonnier said he chose an induction range for his new kitchen. Induction ranges use an electromagnetic field that’s powered by electricity, not fossil fuel. Induction cooktops lose less heat while cooking (i.e. they waste less energy) and they heat faster.
An induction range is typically more costly than other stovetop options. (A gas range can cost around $700 to $1,000, while an electric range can run $400 to $700.) Expect to pay around $1,000 for an induction range, with higher-end versions selling for $3,000-$4,000 or more.
Use cabinetry with wood sourced from a sustainably managed forest.
The most sustainable option for your zero-waste kitchen is the cabinetry that you already have in place. However, if you purchase an older home and want to replace the cabinetry, you can make it your own with various sustainable options.
There are several sustainable wood choices, too. Look for a Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) logo to guarantee that your wood was sustainably sourced with forest conservation in mind. An “FSC 100%” label means the product is made from virgin materials from an FSC-certified forest, while a “FSC Mix” label denotes a mix of recycled materials and virgin materials.
Salvaged or reclaimed wood are two other great options for cabinetry, especially if they’re sourced close to your home. Carbonnier is working with a reclaimed wood specialist in Los Angeles called TREELINE, which repurposes wood coming off construction sites, refurbishes it, and puts it back into circulation (as opposed to going to a landfill).
If your best option is a chain store and you’re on a tight budget, a solid option is IKEA: namely, its KUNGSBACKA line of cabinets and drawers made from recycled wood and plastic bottles.
Reduce food waste (and shop more consciously).
Minimizing your family’s food waste is a critical part of your zero-waste kitchen — and your sustainable lifestyle in general. If you suspected that the food waste problem is massive (imagine your dinner leftovers millions of times over), you’re correct: The U.S. alone generated nearly 41 million tons of food waste in 2017 — with the vast majority ending up in municipal landfills — and food waste comprises one-fifth of municipal solid waste.
Why is this an issue (beyond the obvious)? Decomposing organic materials produce greenhouse gases, which trap heat in the atmosphere and contribute to climate change. Although many greenhouse gases are released in landfills, methane comprises around half the total amount, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency notes. Methane traps 86 times more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide (another greenhouse gas), according to Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law organization. Landfills represented 15 percent of methane emissions in 2018. That may not sound like a lot, but that amount of methane was comparable to greenhouse gas emissions from 20.6 million passenger vehicles.
Keeping food waste out of landfills is crucial to reduce methane emissions. Here are some ways you can do just that (starting with being more intentional about your grocery shopping):
- Buy local and in-season. Buying in-season foods from your local farmers’ market, CSA or co-op can curb greenhouse gas emissions, as it shortens the distance they must travel. A guide like the Seasonal Food Guide (which also has a free app) can familiarize you with which foods are in season near you.
- Make a shopping list and buy only what you need. Basic meal planning can go a long way toward cutting back on wasted food. We can all get better about planning meals a few days in advance and checking our fridges and cupboards for ingredients before shopping.
- Get smart about food storage. Research in advance the best way to store fruits and vegetables so they don’t spoil or go rotten.
- Compost your food scraps. Composting food scraps not only keeps them out of landfills but it also gifts you with the organic materials for rich, healthy soil. OXO ($19.99) sells a bucket-shaped compost pail and charcoal filters ($12.99) to eliminate less-than-pleasing smells. And if you have a bit of outdoor space, this worm composter can also help you cut back on food waste.
- Donate what you won’t eat. If you won’t get around to eating all your groceries, share them with those who will. Donate unopened and unused food items to a food bank (you can find one through Feeding America) or community fridge. These days, that generosity is especially welcomed.
Keep the air quality in your kitchen high by using no- or low-VOC paints, stains and coatings.
We may not think of objects emitting chemicals into the air unless we can smell them ourselves, such as glue. But in fact, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are everywhere in your home, even when we can’t smell or see them. VOCs can be emitted from paints, stains, coatings, wood preservatives, wood sealers or binders, strippers and thinners, coatings, grout sealers, caulks, sealants and adhesives.
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, VOCs are emitted as gases from some solids or liquids. “VOCs include a variety of chemicals, some of which may have short- and long-term adverse health effects,” it says. “Concentrations of many VOCs are consistently higher indoors (up to 10 times higher) than outdoors.” Some of the more well-known VOCs found in the home are formaldehyde, benzene and toluene, notes the American Lung Association.
It is possible that you already have VOCs in your home. The American Lung Association recommends opening windows and letting fresh air into your home so that VOCs do not concentrate. If you use a heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system, keep it well-maintained so that it can ventilate these harmful compounds out of your home.
Be cognizant of potential VOC-containing products you use (or have used) on cabinets, counters, furniture and even insulation. Look for “no VOC” or “low VOC” on labels while shopping. A good place to start looking is Green Building Supply, which lists the VOC content on every item. Carbonnier also recommends cross-checking chemicals listed in your products with the Living-Building Challenge’s Red List.
Use recycled materials for your countertops.
Your most sustainable options for countertops are the ones you already have. But if you are installing new countertops, consider using materials like recycled glass, bamboo, or wood.
Recycled glass countertops may be one of the most accessible options, as they are available in nationwide chains like Lowe’s. Look closely at the components of recycled glass countertops, however, as they may contain harmful ingredients like crystalline silica dust. Recycled glass is often encased in an epoxy to create a non-porous resin. Low- and no-VOC epoxies are available to create this resin.
Countertops made of marble, quartz or granite are certainly beautiful and they may seem like a sustainable choice because they are natural. However, Carbonnier notes that often, sourcing these materials creates an enormous carbon footprint.
Use water-efficient faucets and a sustainably sourced sink.
Once again, the most sustainable option for your sink is the one that you already have. But if you are purchasing a new sink, opt for one made from recycled materials. Just Sinks, for example, sells sinks made from recycled stainless steel.
Outfit your sink with a low-flow faucet and aerometer. According to the EPA, a standard faucet uses 2.2 gallons every minute. But a water efficient faucet with a WaterSense label can reduce that flow by 30% (a.k.a. low-flow). “It has actually gotten to the point that almost all new faucets are WaterSense certified except for some brands or specialty faucets,” says Swayze. “But you absolutely want to go low-flow or else you’ll be paying for it in your water bill — and the planet will be paying for it, too.”
When it comes to your usage of water itself, the options are typically well water or the municipal supply. But if you live in certain locations with moderate to high precipitation, you can capture rainwater yourself in a process called rainwater harvesting. Rainwater harvesting means you are not dependent on your local fresh water or groundwater supply.
Optimize your natural lighting.
“The more natural lighting we can do, the better,” says Carbonnier. He says he is using a combination of skylights and windows in his kitchen as he builds his home. Tubular skylights, for example, resemble overhead lighting when it’s sunny out. If you’re building your own home, you can also be strategic about the existing trees and landscaping to maximize sunlight coming in.
If you are working with an existing kitchen, maximize your use of any windows. Consider setting up your work/prep station nearby so that you can take advantage of natural lighting. And of course, energy-efficient lighting is the most sustainable option for your zero-waste kitchen. For example, light-emitting diode (LED) light bulbs with an ENERGY STAR rating can last 25 times longer than fluorescent bulbs and use 75% less energy, according to the United States Department of Energy.
Shop thrift stores, tag sales or online for new appliances.
It’s always fun to look at new kitchen appliances and imagine the meals or beverages you could make. But Swayze urges you to think carefully about whether that new air fryer or sous vide really has a place in your zero-waste kitchen.
If you decide that yes, you really do need a Belgian waffle maker, first see what you can find secondhand. Thrift stores, tag sales and online, including Craigslist, Buy Nothing, and Freecycle, are all places where you can find gently used and even new appliances and gadgets. (The same goes for dinnerware, cutlery and bakeware.)
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