Creating a More Eco-Friendly Kitchen

The Sustainable Kitchen and Bath exhibit was very popular at this year’s Earth Optimism Exhibit at Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Photo: L. Karrer

Chances are that you’ve spent more time in your kitchen over the last couple of years than ever before. Considering an upgrade?  Some upgrades can save you money over time and reduce your environmental footprint.  Read on for a few options to consider, many of which will go easy on your bank account. 

Low Budget Green Kitchen Ideas

If you’re looking for low budget greening ideas for your kitchen, start with lighting. The US Department of Energy notes that LEDs, especially EnergyStar-rated products, use at least 75% less energy and last up to 25 times longer than incandescent lighting. LEDs are now available in all sorts of fixtures including recessed or area lights, and undercabinet and accent lights.

Composting food waste is another easy way to reduce your carbon footprint. When trashed, food produces methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. While DC doesn’t offer curbside composting, you can get a rebate of up to $75 towards the purchase of an outdoor compost bin or worm bin.  And, if space is an issue, you can drop off your food waste at one of DC’s many farmers markets (the one at Eastern Market operates year-round), become part of one of the more than 50 compost cooperatives around DC, or sign up with a local compost hauler who will pick up your stash weekly for about $35 per month. 

Another way to green your kitchen is to reduce the purchase of single-use plastics—packaging and wraps.  While there are ready markets for #1 Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) (think soda bottles) and #2 High-density polyethylene (HDPE) (milk/juice containers), most others are not recycled (even though DC accepts them in recycling). Aluminum is infinitely recyclable, and it weighs less than glass, so buy beverages in aluminum when you can.  Opt for glass over plastic and use reusable shopping bags everywhere. And consider buying in bulk or purchasing from DC area stores that focus on minimal packaging such as The Rounds and Mason&Greens (which will be opening a Capitol Hill store in the coming months). 

Green Kitchen Design

If you’re ready to renovate your kitchen, there are many environmentally friendly options. Jason Holstine started the Kensington-based Amicus Green Building Center in 2005 and has learned a lot about what works—and what doesn’t—when it comes to greening a kitchen. Amicus built a model “sustainable kitchen and bath” exhibit that you might have seen at this year’s Smithsonian Folklife Festival’s “Earth Optimism” focus on the National Mall.  His advice starts with the design. “Take the time to find a designer/contractor who understands your greening goals, will listen to you, and will use your preferred materials. Focus on the layout, maximizing storage and usability; and coordinate the looks/palette/parts so they all jive. This upfront planning should be a minimal cost that will give a huge payback and save headaches, delays, and second guessing.”

Even small changes like buying in bulk and storing food in glass containers can reduce plastic packaging and save you some money. Photo: C. Plume

Once you’re ready to start the work, consider “deconstructing” versus “destroying” your old space.  Local stores like  Community Forklift, Habitat Restore, Second Chance, and Loading Dock will take materials—cabinets, counter tops, appliances, sinks, cabinet knobs, copper wire, etc.—that are in good condition and resell or donate these items.  Some will even pick these up from your home, and you might even get a tax deduction for your donation. When it comes to the actual work, Jason advised:

• Use healthier paints and finishes (avoid solvents, glycols, acetone, and VOCs);

• Install environmentally friendly flooring (cork is natural, comfortable, sound absorbing and warm);

• Use tiling/backsplashes containing recycled content;

• Buy appliances (including ceiling fans) that carry the Energy Star label (check out the DC Sustainable Energy Utility (DC SEU) rebates for energy efficient refrigerators, heating and cooling options, etc. 

• Ditch the gas stove and purchase an electric or induction model. “Natural” gas creates methane inside your home, and if installed incorrectly, that’s not good for indoor air quality. While electric and induction stoves both use electricity, an induction stove will cook food much faster and save energy. 

• If you have exterior walls that are opened during construction, upgrade the insulation and air sealing.

While your new kitchen will be more environmentally friendly, your purchasing-power also speaks—and influences– retailers. You can lower your environmental footprint by purchasing goods made in US (especially eastern US) as they’ll have a lower transportation footprint than those manufactured in other parts of the world. If you’re purchasing any wood (cabinets, flooring, countertops, lumber, etc.) look for FSC or PEFC certified or reclaimed products. 

And the easiest thing for greening your kitchen? Even, Jason, the businessman store owner, knows.

“Use ‘grandma’s rules’—only run the dishwasher when full, only slightly prerinse dishes, and stack them smartly; don’t loiter in front of an open fridge; and turn off lights when you leave the room.”

Greening your kitchen.  It can be as simple as that!

Catherine Plume is a lifelong environmentalist, an urban homesteader, writer, and active member of the DC Chapter of the Sierra Club and its Executive Committee. Perspectives expressed are her own and do not necessarily represent the positions of that organization.