Greening Your Kitchen

Eco-friendly choices can save you money while helping to save the planet.

Okay, so you buy organic food, shop at farmers’ markets, and fill the recycling bin every week. It also makes sense to go green when it’s time to remodel your kitchen, especially when the choices you make can save you some green by slicing your home’s energy use. Besides reducing your carbon footprint, some greener choices work far better than conventional products while improving indoor air quality in the bargain.

But knowing what is and isn’t green can be more complicated than it seems. “There is no perfect green product,” says Jennifer Senick, executive director of the Rutgers Center for Green Building. Even solar cells have to be manufactured and that involves pollution and waste, she says. So, going green often includes considering a product’s environmental impact over its entire life cycle.

That can also mean looking past what manufacturers and salesmen say about their products. “Companies have tacked the word ‘green’ onto just about everything they sell,” says Tony Brown, director of the Ecosa Institute, a sustainable design school in Prescott, Ariz. “But really they’re just doing what they’ve always done, with a minor tweak here or there. It’s lip service, not a green revolution.”

Here’s our guide to bona-fide environmentally friendly kitchen remodeling, from what products to look for and which green certifications you can trust to some simple design principles that yield the greenest results.

Buying Green

Appliances. Any green kitchen project should start with energy use and its long-term payback of lower energy bills. For dishwashers and refrigerators start by checking the energy use or efficiency scores in the Ratings in this issue. And look for the Energy Star label, although Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports, has found that some products use more energy than their labels promise. And be sure to compare the “Estimated Yearly Energy Use” listed on the labels. For example, some non-Energy Star refrigerators may actually use less energy than similarly sized Energy Star models, with actual usage depending on configuration and features.

Cabinets. Look for certification labels indicating that the wood was sustainably harvested and constructed with adhesives and finishes that are low-VOC (volatile organic compounds are unhealthy chemicals that off-gas from many manufactured products, especially flooring, fiberboard, and finishes). You also want products with no added urea formaldehyde (a common construction adhesive that off-gasses into the home and is a likely carcinogen).

Countertops. Among the earth-friendly alternatives recommended by Jennifer Schwab, the Sierra Club Green Home’s Director of Sustainability, are concrete, engineered stone (quartz), recycled-glass tiles, paper composite, and reclaimed wood. Of these materials, quartz did far better overall in our countertop tests and looks more like real granite or marble. Look for products certified for low VOCs and no urea formaldehyde.

Flooring. One way to go green is to reuse flooring from another building, known as reclaimed wood, or use flooring made from logs recovered from the bottom of waterways, called “sinker wood.” Pluses include the fact that you can often get “old growth” wood with striking patterns and even distress marks for a vintage feel. But neither of the reclaimed products we tested fared well. You can also use new flooring that’s been harvested sustainably. Cork and bamboo are renewable resources, and while they’re are harvested overseas, they are relatively lightweight to ship. The best bamboo also beat oak and other hardwoods in our tests. Also consider tiles made from recycled glass. And as an alternative to vinyl flooring, consider linoleum, which is made entirely from natural materials (cork, jute, and linseed oil), though it must be shipped from England, where it’s manufactured. Look for products certified for low VOCs and no added urea formaldehyde.

Backsplash. Use tiles made from recycled porcelain or glass, suggests Jennifer Senick. But keep in mind that some recycled products—like terrazzo tiles—can contain binders, such as epoxy, that can emit harmful chemicals. So, again, choose products certified for low VOCs and other emissions. Windows. If you’re installing new windows, look for Energy Star products, which means they’re more efficient than at least 80 percent of the windows sold today.

Vent hood. A vent hood that exhausts outside can reduce indoor air pollution by clearing your kitchen of fumes, moisture, and grease. But pass on that showpiece hood if its fan is rated for a larger space than your kitchen; you lose huge amounts of heated and cooled air along with the smoke. And note that exhaust fans built into over-the-range microwaves haven’t performed well in our tests.

Paint. Look for paints certified as low VOC, but don’t stop there. Also consider paints tinted with low- or no-VOC pigments. The best of today’s low-VOC interior paints also topped the charts in our performance tests. The Benjamin Moore Natura brand performed well in our tests, it’s low VOCs and is tinted with no-VOC pigments.

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