The Eco-kitchen

By Nancy Schatz Alton

This article was originally published in April 2009

kitchen collage

From using appliances more efficiently to cleaning with earth-friendly products, you can create a more energy efficient and eco-friendly kitchen – saving resources and money.

(April 2009) — My friends think of me as a green gal, especially when we’re talking about the heart of the home. My refrigerator is stocked with organic food, I seldom buy paper towels, and I compost diligently.

I’ve often dreamed of someday creating a kitchen that’s as green as you can get but until then, I’ve found many ways to improve my current cooking space. From using appliances more efficiently to cleaning with earth-friendly products, here’s a primer for how you can, too.

Use non-toxic cleansers
One simple way to green your kitchen is to clean with environmentally friendly products. Read the labels of your current cleaners. Do the words “caution,” “warning” or “danger” appear? According to the Washington Toxics Coalition (WTC), two of the most dangerous kitchen cleansers are drain and oven cleaners.

The coalition’s Web site warns, “Products labeled DANGER or POISON are the most hazardous. Those labeled CAUTION or WARNING pose a medium hazard.” Products with no signal word are not considered hazardous by the federal government but this does not mean they are entirely free of hazardous chemical ingredients.

(If you have questions about how to dispose of hazardous chemicals, call the Seattle/King County Hazards Line at 206-296-4692 or 888-TOXIC-ED.)

Some cleaning product labels tout their antimicrobial or antibacterial properties. An antimicrobial kills or inhibits bacteria, viruses or molds, while antibacterial products are effective only against bacteria.

Maria Mergel, a research and education associate with the WTC, says the question to ask is, “Do we need to worry about these germs?”

Mergel says we need to be fastidious cleaners only when working with raw meats. Use a separate cutting board for meats. Washing the cutting board in the dishwasher is great but unnecessary. “Really hot water and lots of soap will clean it as well,” she says.
“After I cut meat, I wipe down my countertops and make sure no raw meat is in contact with anything.”

This simple advice carries over when talking about cleaning the kitchen in general. “The average consumer really is expecting that faint wisp of chlorine or Lysol [which are pesticides regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency] or one of those other commercial brands they have been acculturated to,” says PCC’s Nutrition Education Manager Goldie Caughlan. “Elbow grease and soap and water are very adequate.”

What’s a clean freak to do? You can purchase bio-based or food-based cleaners. Seventh Generation, Bi-O-Kleen and Country Save are some of the earth-friendly cleaners available at PCC, and WTC has a recommended list of safer cleaning products ( (PDF)).

WTC also has plenty of advice on making your own cleaners. White vinegar cleans and disinfects and can be used for almost every kitchen cleaning task. Hydrogen peroxide is another all-purpose disinfectant — simply mix it with water in a spray bottle. For fragrance, if desired, you can add thyme or rosemary oil.

You can scour counters, appliances and sinks by sprinkling baking powder on a damp washcloth, and add a few drops of liquid soap for extra strength. Also, consider using washcloths instead of sponges — sponges harbor germs and bacteria.

The dishwasher
Until six years ago, dishwashers made in the United States. didn’t have a water-rinse rating but the federal government’s Energy Star rating system now rates energy and water usage on appliances. You may be surprised to learn that using your dishwasher actually can lighten your ecological footprint!

A study from the University of Bonn in Germany claims that using the dishwasher instead of hand washing dishes uses half the energy and one-sixth the water, in addition to less soap. To use your dishwasher efficiently, Solvie Karlstrom, the assistant editor of National Geographic’s green consumer publication The Green Guide, recommends that you:

  • Don’t pre-rinse your dishes before loading, as this can add 20 gallons of water usage to one load.
  • Completely load your dishwasher.
  • Run it on the light or normal cycle.
  • Don’t use the drying function; let dishes air-dry.
  • Use a phosphate-free dishwashing detergent; several are available at PCC. Phosphates, which cause water pollution, can end up in lakes and rivers.

Often I find myself washing dishes in the sink instead of the dishwasher, camping-style: with a big bowl partly filled with hot, soapy water. I turn the water on only after I have scrubbed the dishes, rinsing as quickly as possible.

To save more water, Kathleen Smith, LEED-accredited architect and author of “The Northwest Green Home Primer,” screwed a $5 flip aerator (available at most hardware stores) on the end of her kitchen faucet. She adjusts the water to the ideal dishwashing temperature, then flips the aerator’s lever up to stop the flow of water in an instant. She turns the water back on by flipping the aerator lever down.

The refrigerator
A home’s heating and cooling devices are its biggest energy drains, and kitchen appliances suck up roughly 30 percent of household energy usage. The number-one culprit is the refrigerator.

“If you bought your refrigerator before 2001, it’s really inefficient,” says The Green Guide’s Karlstrom. If you can afford to replace one kitchen appliance, the refrigerator is your best bet.

To keep your current cold-storage unit running at its optimum energy level, Karlstrom recommends that you:

  • Keep the refrigerator between 37 and 40 degrees and the freezer at 5 degrees. Check the fridge temperature by putting a glass of water with a thermometer on the middle shelf and leaving it there for 24 hours.
  • Crowd your freezer with food, then raise the temperature a degree or two. The frozen foods will cool each other.
  • Don’t use the fridge top for storage. This blocks air circulation, forcing the compressor to work harder.
  • Cover your food. Liquids evaporate, which causes the compressor to do more work. Let foods cool down before you refrigerate them.
  • Check the door seal. Place a dollar bill near the seal and shut the door. If it doesn’t stay in place, call a refrigerator repair service to replace your seals.
  • Pull your refrigerator out from the wall once a year and vacuum the coils.

The oven/stove
Once the food leaves the fridge, it usually heads for the stovetop or oven. But Karlstrom says I should retain my summer cooking mindset — that is, cooking as little as possible — all year long.

“If you skip using your oven two times every week, you’ll save 230 pounds of CO² a year,” she says.

Tips to keep in mind when cooking on the stovetop or in the oven:

  • Keep the oven door closed. Energy escapes each time you open it, increasing cooking time.
  • Use the correct size burner for the pot.
  • Defrost food before cooking it.
  • Put lids on pots.
  • Turn off the burner or the oven before you finish cooking. Residual heat — even on a gas burner — will finish the cooking process.

Despite what most recipes tell you, preheating the oven isn’t always necessary. You don’t need to preheat if something needs to bake for a long time and has a “done” point that’s relatively flexible — for example, bacon, roasted garlic, beets or baked potatoes.

But definitely do not skip preheating when baking cakes or breads, because the rate at which different ingredients melt or interact is crucial. Anything that cooks quickly also requires a preheated oven.

Figure out how long your oven takes to preheat so you don’t waste energy keeping it hot.

Natural gas vs. electric power
Because my electric oven seems to be almost as old as I am, I sometimes debate replacing it, wondering if gas would be a greener option.

“On a basic level, gas does the job with less energy. It can provide instant heat and greater control over the level of heat, especially if you are using a newer gas stove with an electronic ignition which uses about 40 percent less gas than stoves with a pilot light,” says Smith, the architect. “But a key question is where you are actually getting your energy from.”

Natural gas is a non-renewable fossil fuel. Much of the electricity in the United States comes from coal-powered plants, but the positive side of having an electric stove is that some of your energy comes from a renewable source.

In Seattle, more than 90 percent of electricity is hydro-powered. Seattle residents also can make voluntary payments on their electricity bill to cover the slightly higher cost of producing and integrating renewable energy into the Northwest grid, although choosing to do so does not change how electricity is transmitted to your home. (See for more information.)

Small appliances
I’ll probably stick with my old electric range until it dies. Besides, smaller appliances — such as pressure cookers and toaster ovens — are the best way to avoid using my energy-sucking stove.

Pressure cookers are inexpensive appliances that can reduce cooking time and energy by up to 70 percent. “When my kids were little, I kept two pressure cookers, which are so useful for grains and beans and chicken and pot roast,” says PCC’s Caughlan.

Caughlan also uses bamboo stacking steamers to cook on her stovetop. “You heat water in your wok and place two or three stacked steamers, with beets on the bottom and greens on the top, for example,” she says.

Soon, I hope to buy a toaster oven, which is twice as efficient as a regular oven. Perhaps then I’ll truly be green inside and out — at least within the four walls of my yellow kitchen.

Nancy Schatz Alton is a freelance writer and editor in Seattle, Washington.
A version of this story originally appeared online at

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