You could say that the kitchen is the hub of a home’s sustainability — or unsustainability. There are so many things to consider, from the food we eat to the way we store leftovers to how much water we use to the amount of waste we produce or recycle. Each of the topics below could fill volumes all on their own. But simply getting started with one or two of them can put you on the road to a more sustainable way of life.
When people ask me which sustainable choice to prioritize, I always suggest switching to organic food to the extent that it’s available and affordable. Our mother’s were right when they said “your health comes first.” And there is a growing body of evidence that the chemicals used in industrial food production are not good for us, particularly when combined with all the other toxins we’re exposed to in our daily lives.
Organic food is widely available these days at the supermarket, discount chains such as Walmart and, of course, local farms and farmers’ markets. Store-brand organic food can be an affordable option. Just make sure packaging bears the USDA certification label. If you have a green thumb, try planting an organic edible garden. And if your budget necessitates choosing just a few organic items, check out the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG’s) Dirty Dozen list for helpful suggestions.
Plastic storage containers are convenient. Plastic food packaging is less expensive than glass and, of course, non-breakable. And plastic wrap is ubiquitous. But when plastics are heated (in the microwave, in a dishwasher or by sitting in the sun), the petrochemicals from which they are made can leach into our food. Similarly, oils and other fats can become a conduit, contaminating foods such as cooking oils and salad dressings.
Freeing your kitchen of plastic storage and packaging is a great goal, but don’t let the significant challenge prevent you from taking immediate — and easy — steps. Avoid heating any plastic food container. Choose glass packaging for any food item that contains oil or other fats. Recycle plastic that’s marked with the recycling logo. And gradually find alternative food storage, such as stainless steel, glass and reusable lids and covers as a substitute for plastic wrap.
Stay away from polystyrene.
Styrene, which is a known carcinogen and has been linked to liver damage and nervous system disorders, can dissolve in foods containing oils or butter. Many food businesses have replaced polystyrene containers with plastic. But you still may discover that your takeout order came in a toxic little package. Transfer your food to a safe dish and store leftovers in glass, ceramic or stainless steel.
Consider the frying pan.
If you have non-stick pans, be aware that they may contain PTFE (polytetrafluoroethylene) and perfluorinated chemicals, such as PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid). There are suspected links between these chemicals and numerous health problems. Because they’re in so many products and take so long to break down, scientists believe most of us already have these chemicals in our blood. The manufacture and disposal of products containing perfluorinated chemicals contributes to water pollution and contamination of drinking water in many areas of the country.
While there are newer non-stick pans on the market that don’t contain PTFE or PFOA, exactly what they are made from may not be indicated on the packaging. The safest choice is avoiding non-stick surfaces altogether.
Many kitchen cleansers contain substances that independent scientific studies have linked to everything from mild lung and skin irritation to cancer and other serious health problems. You can find out what’s really in your kitchen cabinet by looking up your cleansers on the Environmental Working Group’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning database. The site rates cleaning products, lets you know what potential hazards they may contain and can help you find healthier replacements. Another option is to go DIY, mixing up old-fashioned but effective cleansers from distilled white vinegar, isopropyl alcohol and other basic, inexpensive ingredients.
Be water efficient.
It’s estimated that each of us uses about 80 gallons to 100 gallons of water a day. While much of our water usage takes place in the bathroom, it’s still a good idea to watch how much water we’re using in the kitchen. A few simple steps: Run the sink faucet at the lowest possible volume when washing anything by hand and keep the water on only when absolutely necessary. Most of the research says that we use less water when we run the dishwasher than when we clean dishes in the sink. We can increase the sustainability of the dishwasher load by choosing the quick cycle, turning off the drying option, running only full loads and using as little dishwasher soap as possible to reduce the amount of rinsing necessary.
Since food and other organic waste tend not to break down completely in landfill, they can become a source of methane, a potent greenhouse gas and air pollutant. If you have a lawn and/or garden and plan to do some gardening — or if you live in a town or city with a community composting program — you can keep organic waste out of landfill by using it to create compost. Simply toss produce scraps, used coffee filters, coffee grains and teabags, eggshells and spent flowers in a small covered pail in the kitchen. You’ll need to build a composting pile in your yard unless your municipality offers curbside pickup. Over time, a mix of leaves, dried grass and other “browns” will mix with the “greens” from your kitchen to yield rich, dark humus for your planting beds.
Besides composting, be sure to recycle as much of your other kitchen waste as possible. Any plastic bags you accumulate (even if you’re trying your best to avoid them) can be recycled at supermarkets and big-box stores. Recyclable plastic may be tossed in with your other curbside recycling. Hopefully your waste management company also picks up glass and plastic bottles, tin and aluminum cans and clean cardboard and paper. Other items, such as waxed milk cartons, may require you to find a specialty recycling outfit.
Sound like too much to handle? Just tackle one of these at a time. When you’re ready, move on to whatever seems most important to you. Then keep going!