Creating a Green Kitchen: From Resource Planning to Maintenance
The kitchen is the home’s work center and a top resource consumer. You can mitigate many of the kitchen’s environmental impacts—and provide a healthier environment for your household—by following these recommendations for the design, materials specification, construction process, and use of your kitchen.
DESIGN FOR REDUCED RESOURCE USE
Whether your aesthetic is modern or traditional, there are green materials and design strategies to match.
Reducing energy and water use will yield the biggest improvement in your kitchen’s environmental soundness. We recommend replacing older major appliances with the most resource-efficient models you can afford, making sure they are only as large as you need. Refrigerators and dishwashers that are more than 10 years old and stoves that are more than 20 years old typically are inefficient and polluting.
Refrigerators use 14 percent of a home’s electricity, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Today’s most efficient 20-cubic-foot refrigerators use 47 percent less electricity than 1993 models. Beware of these resource hogs:
- side-by-side refrigerator/freezers use 10 percent more electricity than freezer-on-top models;
- through-the-door water and ice dispensers and automatic icemakers can increase electricity use by up to 20 percent; and
- automatic defrost models can use up to 40 percent more energy than manual defrost models,
according to the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI). See RMI’s Kitchen Appliances Home Energy Brief for more information.
Dishwashers use up to 80 percent of their electricity to heat water. Today’s more efficient models use less than half the water and one-quarter the electricity of 10-year-old models, according to RMI’s brief on cleaning appliances. For additional water savings, fix pipe leaks and install flow-restrictor aerator heads on older faucets (new faucets often come with aerator heads).
Lighting accounts for 5 to 10 percent of total electricity used in U.S. homes. The best way to reduce your power use is to locate workspaces near windows or install more windows or a skylight so that you can take advantage of daylight (a strategy known as daylighting). Where you need extra light, use individually controlled task lighting so you won’t waste electricity illuminating more space than you need, and install fluorescent bulbs. Fluorescent lighting saves enough electricity to pay for its extra cost in a matter of years, depending on your electricity price, according to a study by the Australian Department of the Environment. For more on lighting, see RMI’s brief on the topic.
DESIGN FOR IMPROVED INDOOR ENVIRONMENT
Air quality and ventilation are the most important health issues in your kitchen. Consider design strategies such as creating cross breezes through your kitchen and locating workspaces near windows.
Install an energy-efficient exhaust hood above the stove that vents to the outside to remove fumes and increase fresh air. A fan that can move 100 cubic feet of air per minute is appropriate for an average kitchen, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, but your needs will depend on your stove and the size of your kitchen. Sealing leaks around window frames with low-VOC (volatile organic compounds) caulk or weather stripping will give you more control over ventilation and air quality.
Gas stoves emit nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and other harmful compounds directly into your kitchen, requiring more energy for ventilation and for heating or cooling to condition replacement air. Electric stoves do not directly pollute your kitchen, but their electricity use creates more total global pollution. Gas and electric stoves have roughly similar energy efficiencies when electricity transmission losses are considered. New electric stoves are getting more energy-efficient (convection ovens and induction-element ranges are the most efficient), and electricity sources may get cleaner. Gas stoves cost about half as much to operate, depending on energy prices, though both types cost a matter of cents per hour, according to California’s Consumer Energy Center. Given these complexities, we cannot offer a simple recommendation, but it’s worth considering these differences if you are in the market for a new stove.
Lead is still widespread in drinking water, despite regulation. Lead affects children most severely, delaying physical or mental development, and can cause kidney problems or high blood pressure in adults. It is used mainly in solder to connect pipes, and in plumbing pipes themselves in houses built before 1930. Water filters can remove various compounds; see Water Filter Comparisons for a list of popular filters and the compounds they remove.
If you need to replace your plumbing due to lead in your pipes, use only lead-free materials and lead-free solder. Copper, PVC, CPVC, PEX and other plastics are commonly used materials and should meet NSF/ANSI Standard 61. Copper is environmentally preferable because the plastics are very difficult to recycle, are petroleum-derived, and require roughly the same amount of energy to produce as copper, according to Brighton University. Avoid brass faucets and fittings, which can leach lead.
Mold grows in damp places and can easily get into the air, causing respiratory problems. Ventilation removes moisture from the kitchen environment, and fixing pipe leaks prevents damp environments where mold can grow out of sight.
As a work center, the particular challenge in the kitchen is the interaction of building materials with water and food preparation. Select materials that are easily cleaned and resistant to water damage.
Carpeting in the kitchen is a bad idea; smooth, hard surfaces like linoleum and wood are recommended. For more information, consult Green Home Guide’s Flooring Know-How section, where you’ll find architect Marian Keeler’s green flooring recommendations and a buyer’s guide. Other recommended healthy flooring materials include bamboo, cork, and tiles made from reclaimed or recycled materials.
Cabinets are commonly made of particleboard, medium-density fiberboard (MDF), or compressed wood products. These materials often contain formaldehyde and adhesives that may offgas for years after installation and cause lung, head, or eye pain. Alternatives include formaldehyde-free MDF and panels made of compressed agricultural plant material (such as wheatboard or strawboard). If your internal shelves and drawers are in good shape, replacing only cabinet and drawer fronts as needed will save material and money. For more advice on building or buying green cabinets, read Green Home Guide’s Ask A Pro articles by green building experts Susan Davis and Tracy A. Stone.
Countertops take a lot of hard use in the kitchen, and are a specialty of their own. In contrast to appliances, the majority of a countertop’s environmental impact occurs during the raw material extraction and manufacturing processes. Because of these early impacts, reclaimed materials are environmentally preferable to their new counterparts. In addition, reclaimed materials have usually finished offgassing long ago. See Green Home Guide’s Countertops Know-How section for a green countertop buyer’s guide.
CONSTRUCTION AND REMODELING
Your project will generate large amounts of waste material. Reusing the kitchen’s existing materials in your remodeling project will divert useful materials from the landfill. You may also be able to find materials such as floor tile, decorative fixtures, and stone remnants at your local salvage yard.
Make sure to properly recycle old appliances rather than selling them and having them continue to use electricity inefficiently. Coolant in older refrigerators may release CFCs that will slow the regeneration of the ozone layer if not handled properly.
MAINTENANCE AND USE
Once you have created a greener, healthier kitchen, you’ll want to keep it that way. Among the priorities are prolonging the life of the appliances and materials you’ve installed, using them in the most efficient and healthy way possible, and reducing the volume and toxicity of wastewater and garbage sent to landfills. Here are the most significant steps you can take:
You can prolong your refrigerator’s life and prevent electricity waste by unplugging it and wiping off the condenser coils at least once a year, and, if you have a manual defrost freezer, defrosting it according to the manufacturer’s specifications to keep the compressor from overworking.
Save electricity by keeping your refrigerator between 36 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit and your freezer between 0 and 5 degrees Fahrenheit. Keeping them colder will do little for your food but will waste electricity. Use a thermometer to confirm the temperature. For more information, see the RMI brief on kitchen appliances.
You can reduce your dishwasher’s electricity use by 15 to 50 percent by washing only full loads of dishes and using unheated air to dry your dishes. Use wash settings appropriate to the types and dirtiness of the dishes you are washing to avoid excess soak cycles that would waste water. Go to the DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) website for more advice.
Floors & Counters
To protect floors and counters from hard daily use, porous materials like wood, stone, and grout should be resealed periodically to prolong their life and prevent water damage. Use nontoxic sealants to preserve air quality.
When using your stove’s exhaust hood, prevent mold and soot from entering your kitchen by opening windows wide so enough replacement air can enter; otherwise, air may be drawn into the kitchen through the chimney or up through the basement. Regularly check the vent opening for grease buildup, and have the duct cleaned if it is dirty. See Home Energy Magazine’s "Backdrafting Causes and Cures" for more information.
If lead is a concern and you do not have a water filter, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends using only cold water for drinking and food preparation, and letting the tap run until the water is cold if you have not run the faucet in the past six hours.
Cleaning products can introduce dangerous compounds into your kitchen. Consult this fact sheet from Inspired Living for safe substitutes to the toxins in common consumer products. Keep toxic cleaners out of your wastewater and landfills by disposing of them properly; the EPA provides useful information on recycling and safe disposal of household hazardous waste.
Green Home Guide’s Green Kitchen Know-How section
These articles offer advice from green professionals on making your kitchen more energy efficient, tips for making the most of a small kitchen space, and more.
Rocky Mountain Institute’s Home Energy Briefs
A series of publications detailing how to save energy throughout your home. The Cleaning Appliances, Kitchen Appliances, and Lighting briefs are particularly useful for kitchen projects.
EPA Lead Factsheet
Extensive information about lead in household water.
The U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Savers Guide to Appliances
Tips on how to make the most efficient use of your major home appliances.
Green Home Guide Staff