Eight steps to a more eco-friendly kitchen

By Domenica Marchetti
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, March 4, 2010

Once upon a time, 30 or 40 years ago, the words "green kitchen" meant that your kitchen looked like the inside of an avocado. Now (thankfully) those words mean something quite different.

Traditionally, the kitchen has been a place where waste reigned: in energy-hogging appliances, eco-unfriendly materials and a treasure-trove of toxins under the sink. But in the past decade or so, the concept of a green kitchen -- one that is energy-efficient, easier on the environment and better for your health -- has taken off.

"Whether you believe in global warming or not, it doesn't make sense to waste money, and that's what you're doing if you're not exploring green options," says John Tabor of Tabor Design Build in Rockville. His company recently remodeled the kitchen of a Clarksville house whose owners asked him to "pull out all the stops" in creating a green space. The room, with a $330,000 price tag, includes recycled concrete and glass countertops, a prep sink made from recycled aluminum, a sub-floor heating system and a potting sink made of recycled glass, to name a few features.

Even if the green theme doesn't extend to your wallet, there are plenty of other ways to make your kitchen more environmentally friendly. It's a good bet you are already doing some of them: separating recyclables from trash, or perhaps carrying your groceries in reusable bags. Here are eight ideas, ranging from simple to elaborate, to get you going greener.

Clean green

A growing number of manufacturers, including J.R. Watkins, Shaklee and Seventh Generation, offer nontoxic, plant-based products that are biodegradable and phosphate-free. Eco-Me sells kits for making your own cleaning products. The book "Home Comforts: The Art & Science of Keeping House," by Cheryl Mendelson (Scribner, $20) includes recipes for making your own window cleaner, oven cleaner, disinfectant and all-purpose cleaner; the latter is nothing more than a mix of four tablespoons of baking soda per one quart of warm water.

Choose nontoxic paint

If you're planning to freshen your kitchen with a new coat of paint, buy a variety that's nontoxic, also known as low-VOC (volatile organic compounds). "That's something that homeowners can easily do for themselves without sacrificing color or palette," says Shanon Munn of Ambi Design Studio in McLean. Munn began incorporating green elements into her work when she opened her business in 2004. Two of her early clients were pregnant, so using anything but low-VOC paint was not an option. "It's just something I do automatically," she says.

Install a recycling bin or kitchen composter

If you are not recycling, it might be because you don't have a separate place in the kitchen to put your glass and plastic, Munn says. Cabinets can easily be retrofitted to install a bin. "All of a sudden, you're recycling," she says. Those who are even more committed might want to add a composting bin. That requires a little more work, as the compost mixture must be "fed" with baking soda and a certain ratio of vegetables to protein to prevent odors from developing. "But for those who are looking for something beyond basic green changes, it's a nice step," Munn says.

Use energy-efficient appliances

When replacing your dishwasher or refrigerator, choose a model that bears the federal Energy Star designation, which means it meets government guidelines for energy efficiency. Because 80 percent of appliances now meet those guidelines, this is an easy change to make, Tabor says. (Indeed, Tabor and many others chide the government for not making its standards more rigorous.)

If you're in the market for a new oven, consider a convection model, which cuts energy use by about 20 percent. Don't run your dishwasher until it's completely full, and keep your refrigerator well stocked, as a full refrigerator uses less energy than an empty one.

Install a foot pedal to operate your sink

Munn added that feature when she redid her own kitchen. "Not only is it green, it's practical," she says. "It's a hands-free operation, which makes it more sanitary, and you use much less water."

Choose recycled, renewable or sustainable materials

Consider such materials for floors, cabinets and countertops, and recycle your old ones if possible. When Tabor's company remodeled the kitchen in Clarksville, workers carefully removed the old cabinets, countertops, plumbing fixtures and appliances and donated them to two families. The hardwood floor was removed and stored, to be installed later in the family's basement.

Sustainable, renewable cork and bamboo are two increasingly popular floor choices. So is Marmoleum; like linoleum, it is made from nontoxic linseed oil.

Green countertop materials include compressed paper, and terrazzo made from recycled glass and/or ceramic mixed with concrete.

For cabinets, look for material that is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. That means it was harvested and fabricated responsibly. Some good options are reclaimed or recycled wood, and rapidly renewable resources such as bamboo and lyptus, a eucalyptus hybrid that resembles cherry when finished but grows back much faster.

Munn recommends researching the manufacturers of cabinets and kitchen furniture and, if possible, choosing a local source. "Even if you are choosing between two non-green cabinet lines, see if you can find out which one's products are closer to where you live," Munn says. "Where are the products being made? Where are the source materials coming from?"

Pay attention to lighting

Many kitchens get plenty of light during the day from sun streaming in through the windows. Light-colored cabinets and other materials help to maximize that light. Avoid turning on the kitchen light when natural illumination is sufficient, and replace incandescent bulbs and fixtures with energy-efficient LED lighting.

Eat green

Whether you're in the mood for a Granny Smith apple or green eggs and ham, try to incorporate locally grown and organic foods into your budget and diet. Most of the food in supermarkets travels thousands of miles to get there. Eat fewer processed foods in favor of fresh fruits and vegetables, and buy local produce. Find a farmers market close to your home. They are everywhere these days, even near the White House, and their wares include seasonal fruits and vegetables as well as locally sourced meat, poultry and dairy products.

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