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8 Steps to a More Eco-Friendly Kitchen

By Cliff Weathers

While you may hear a lot about buying locally grown and organic foods, eco-friendly food preparation, green detergents and non-toxic cleaning products, not much is written about greening the kitchen itself. And yet, as a society we consider the kitchen to be sacred, and collectively we spend more money remodeling this room than any other in the house.

Fortunately, making green choices for your kitchen is as good for the pocket as it is for the planet. And while it may be argued that keeping the kitchen you have might be your greenest option, here are some things to consider whether you're buying new appliances, remodeling or simply trying to reduce the carbon footprint in your cookery.

Iron skillets and antique pans. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

1. Buy eco-friendly countertops.

If you need to replace your countertops, look into renewable sources such as bamboo and hemp, which should cost between $90-$130 a square foot. Another interesting—and visually striking—eco-friendly countertop material is Icestone, which is made from recycled glass and colored concrete. It costs about $75 a square foot. By comparison, marble and granite countertops, two high-end countertop choices popular with consumers, cost between $125-$250. Cheap laminate countertops cost some $20-$50 per square foot.

You may also want to consider using wooden planks or countertops salvaged from old homes. Nonprofit organizations—mostly found in urban areas—dismantle abandoned homes, recycle the materials and resell them for low prices at “rehab stores." Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit that builds and rehabilitates affordable homes, has hundreds of such stores across the country, which they call ReStores.

2. Use reclaimed cabinets.

When redesigning your kitchen, look at salvaging used cabinets or using furniture elements such as antique Hoosier cabinets for your storage needs. Appropriate hanging and sink cabinets, however, might not be so easy to find as it could be hard to locate ones that fit your needs or your kitchen's dimensions. Check out home rehab stores for used cabinets. Antique shops, freecycling organizations, Craigslist and estate sales are good places to find freestanding cabinets and hutches.

New or used, you get what you pay for when it comes to wood products. Cabinetry and furniture made from cheap pine or particle board won't hold up nearly as well as oak, maple, walnut and cherry. While looking at cabinets, pay close attention to joint construction. Anything constructed with staples or nails, or visible glue indicates cheap construction. Look for dowels, screws, dovetail joints, and reinforcement blocks at corners.

3. Buy the right cookware.

While it may be tempting to buy inexpensive, non-stick cookware (like Teflon) there are many legitimate health concerns regarding such cooking surfaces. Moreover, most of the cheap cookware you find at department stores is really not built to last, and will end up in a landfill much sooner than later.

Instead, consider cookware that has stood the test of time. Iron and stainless steel cookware are practically indestructible, and you can save a lot of money buying them used.

Cast iron cookware, when properly seasoned (lightly oiled and baked), can be pretty close to non-stick and iron also holds heat quite well, meaning you could use less energy to cook your food.

Stainless steel is also a good bet, but buying this type of cookware can be a little trickier. It is also pricier than cast iron. The best stainless steel cookware has slick cooking surfaces, even more so than seasoned iron. When shopping, consider only stainless steel cookware that has riveted handles and an aluminum or copper core to help with even heat distribution.

Enamel cookware encases the iron base metal with a coating of porcelain (which is powdered glass melted and baked on top of the metal). While enamel cookware is typically easy to care for, it will likely be your most expensive option. It also doesn't have the non-stick qualities of bare iron or stainless steel cookware so it's not very good for cooking eggs. However, enameled cookware is considered better for acidic dishes, soups, and sauces, as there's no metal surfaces to chemically react with the food. Another advantage of enamel is that it won't hold flavors, like fish, the way that cast iron does.

Unfortunately, some enamel cookware out there is cheap and the porcelain chips easily, and some imported enameled cookware has been known to have lead or other toxic compounds in the pan or coating. So, it's probably best to look for well-respected brand names like Le Creuset, Le Chasseur and Staub when buying new or used enamel cookware.

4. Buy used dishware and utensils.

There's nothing wrong with buying utensils and dishes used, especially if you can find them in matching sets. Thrift stores and estate sales are often the best places to look. Be careful to examine any utensils and dishes for cracks, chips, and missing enamel. China and glassware may also have invisible stresses that could become cracks.

Stainless steel flatware is a more attractive option than silverware, especially if the silverware has lost its plate. While the base metal for silverware is often copper or brass, a tin-alloy base used in some silverware may pose health risks. Also, be sure any plastic dishes or utensils you buy do not contain chemicals such as melamine resin and Bisphenol-A, which may pose health risks.

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