Strategies for Going Green in the Kitchen

From improving indoor air quality to decreasing energy costs, we've got the ideas you need to get your green kitchen now.
By: Rob Fanjoy
Neutral Kitchen With Black Countertops and Tall Mosaic Tile Backsplash

Gray Contemporary Kitchen With Hardwood Floors

The kitchen in HGTV Green Home 2009, designed by Linda Woodrum

The kitchen in HGTV Green Home 2009, designed by Linda Woodrum

While going green in the kitchen will save you money on energy costs, eco-friendly products have a reputation for being expensive, frumpy and difficult to find.

The good news: Earth-friendly products are available in a wider range of styles and costs than ever before, letting you go any shade of green you desire.

With intimidating new terms to learn (off-gassing? VOCs?) and a host of special design considerations, getting from here to green may seem like an impossible assignment. Our experts share tips to demystify the process and help you create the bright, cozy, Earth-friendly kitchen you're craving.

Improve Air Quality

One of the first things to consider is indoor air quality. Since we spend the majority of our time in the house, making sure the air is clean is priority number one. "With today's homes being built tighter, proper ventilation is a necessity," says Sean Ruck, spokesman for the National Kitchen & Bath Association.

One simple way to improve air quality is to install a range hood. "A range hood that exhausts to the outside is the best strategy," Sean says. Your architect or contractor should know how to size your range hood, and most manufacturers will help DIYers get the right hood for their kitchen.

But going green doesn't stop with clean air. Cabinets, countertops, floors and appliances all offer new eco-friendly options that make designing your eco-kitchen easy and fun.

Choose Nontoxic Cabinets

The wood in most cabinetry contains urea-formaldehyde, which off-gasses and can be harmful to your health. Look for cabinets made from solid wood, or alternative materials such as wheatboard, and finished with nontoxic finishes from companies like Neil Kelly Cabinets and Humabuilt. "Cabinetry is still tricky," says Scott Martin, founder of Blue Plum Design, a kitchen design firm in San Francisco that specializes in green kitchen renovations. "There aren't a lot of green options out there and you're most likely going to pay a premium in this area."

Look for Recycled Countertops

Companies like Richlite offer countertops made from recycled paper or hemp, which are extremely durable and easy to clean, but color selection can be limited. If you prefer a tile countertop, look for tiles that are either recycled from previous installations or made from recycled material. Martin's favorite option is a quartz composite known as engineered stone, which is available from companies such as DuPont Zodiaq, CaesarStone, Silestone and IceStone. "We use CaesarStone (which complies with global management and manufacturing standards) in about 80 percent of our kitchens," says Scott. "The depth of color is fantastic."

Buy Energy-Efficient Appliances

These are fairly easy to choose — just look for the Energy Star label, which ensures they are 10 percent to 50 percent more efficient than standard models. Dishwasher drawers are increasingly popular. "These can be pretty pricey, but they take up less space and use less water if you have to wash a small load," says Sean. This is only a green option when you use one drawer; if you use both drawers every night, you're not getting the benefit of the smaller appliance.

Install Water-Saving Features

Choose faucets with aerators, which inject air bubbles into the water stream to achieve the same pressure with less volume. Recirculation pumps keep hot water at the tap, saving hundreds of gallons per year by eliminating the need to run the tap while the water gets hot. Tankless hot water heaters also heat water at the source. Because they are smaller than standard water heaters, they use less water and 10 percent to 20 percent less energy.

Invest in Green Flooring

Linoleum is enjoying a comeback, largely due to its green properties. Made of natural materials such as linseed oil, rosin and wood flour, it is durable and easy to clean. Armstrong and Marmoleum offer a wide array of styles and color options. Cork and bamboo, from companies like Wicanders and Bamtex, also make good choices for a green kitchen, as they are made from rapidly renewable resources. "The newer engineered versions of bamboo are great," says Scott Martin. "They stand up to abuse from pets, high heels and heavy weights better than the old bamboo products."

Maximize Energy-Saving Lighting

Avoid recessed cans, unless they use fluorescent bulbs and are airtight, to keep air from escaping around the can and into the attic. Motion and occupancy sensors save money by automatically turning lights on and off as needed. They are fairly inexpensive and can be mounted in standard switch boxes. LED lighting, which is new to the market, promises long life and extremely efficient operation, but it is not widely available and can be pricey. Scott advises maximizing the use of fluorescents but recommends high-quality, dimmable electrical ballasts, which will not only save energy but prevent flickering.

Use Eco-Friendly Finishes

Thanks to companies like Ecos, AFM Safecoat and Yolo, eco-friendly paints, stains and finishes reduce exposure to these harmful compounds. Seek out water-based finishes with "No VOCs," or no volatile organic compounds, on the label.

Eco-friendly wallpaper products are also available, with low- or no-VOC compositions and glues. Look for papers from Mod Green Pod, Phillip Jeffries and Woodson & Rummerfield. Don't forget the low-VOC caulks, adhesives and sealers.

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