Is it time to remodel your kitchen? It sounds exciting—and expensive—but an eco-friendly kitchen remodel can both help the environment and add value to your home when you eventually sell or refinance it.
Your project begins by hiring a contractor committed to and experienced in sustainable kitchen renovations. You might be aware of eco-friendly professionals in your area or you can browse the “Find a Pro” section of The Green Home Guide.
You will need to make decisions on appliances, materials, colors, etc. before you start, but for now, let’s look at the project in roughly the order of the work.
Table of Contents
1. Demolition and removal of the old kitchen
Whether you are only updating the look of your kitchen or redesigning the entire layout, your project will produce a lot of refuse. Instead of destroying old cabinets, countertops, and flooring, an eco-friendly kitchen remodel will try to keep as much as possible intact.
What you no longer want, someone else may treasure. You can make some money by selling it. Or there may be other ways to reuse or recycle it. The sustainability expert you hired to manage the project will have plenty of ideas for sending as little rubble as possible to the landfill. You are well on your way to your new sustainable kitchen.
2. Shop local
If you can find local suppliers and shops that create what you need with locally sourced resources, they will provide some important environmental benefits. First and foremost, it greatly reduces the transportation component of your carbon footprint. Second, your money stays in the community. What’s more, chances are local craftspeople can offer cabinetry and counters that don’t look like the mass-produced merchandise national chains offer.
People who want an eco-friendly kitchen remodel tend to fall into two groups. One wants their kitchen to look obviously sustainable. The other wants a modern look but with as little environmental impact as possible. The two groups will make very different choices.
So you have already been careful to keep your old materials intact. Other homeowners in the first group might be interested in reusing it themselves.
3. Eco-friendly cabinetry and counters
Reclaimed or salvaged wood is probably the most sustainable material for cabinetry, especially if you find it locally.
Bamboo is more sustainable than wood in most ways. It grows very quickly and doesn’t need fertilizers or pesticides in the process. It grows from an underground rhizome. Harvesting bamboo leaves the rhizome in place. Another culm will grow in its place and be ready for harvest much more quickly than a new tree can grow.
If you want to use wood, you can ensure that it is sustainably grown and harvested by looking for a certification seal either from the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) or the Environmental Stewardship Program (ESP).
Plywood, particle board, pressed wood, or medium-density fiber board probably make the least expensive cabinetry. Unfortunately, they are usually made with glues made with formaldehyde. Formaldehyde is a carcinogen. Long after the glue dries, it still off-gasses and pollutes indoor air. It is possible, however, to find these materials made without formaldehyde or other toxins.
For countertops, you can use any of the materials already described. Other possibilities include recycled porcelain tile, glass, or paper; natural linoleum; quartz or other stone; or even stainless steel.
4. Sustainable flooring
Just as you can choose reclaimed wood, FSC-certified wood, or bamboo for your cabinets, you can choose any of them for your floors. Cork is another eco-friendly choice.
If you like a tile floor, consider either reclaimed or recycled tiles.
The most interesting flooring idea I have come across, however, is mycelium. Mycelium is the fungal equivalent of a root. It is possible to mix spores with agricultural waste or other organic wastes in a mold. The mycelium will consume the waste. The mold prevents it from growing any mushrooms.
By the way, a really drastic kitchen remodel might require gutting the room and putting up new walls. That, in turn, requires insulation. Mycelium makes great insulation, too. I have also seen reference to using mycelium for 3-D printing. Someday, we might be able to get mycelium kitchen chairs.
5. Energy Star appliances
The US Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy have teamed up to create the Energy Star program. The Energy Star logo on a product guarantees that it meets certain standards for energy efficiency. An appliance with Energy Star certification may cost more to buy than a comparable product without it, but it will be less expensive to operate.
Unfortunately, the program does not cover all the appliances you will need for your kitchen. You can use the Energy Star Product Finder to see what is on their list. It changes from time to time. Formerly, there were no Energy Star clothes dryers. At this writing, there are, but not stoves, ovens, ranges, or microwaves. Energy Star does certify refrigerators, freezers, ceiling fans, and dishwashers.
I long preferred a gas stove to an electric one. My current house came with the first electric stove I didn’t hate. It has a glass top, which eliminates spills under the burners. It doesn’t have the push-button controls that made me choose between a temperature hotter or less hot than I wanted.
As it turns out, gas stoves heat less efficiently and emit particulate matter into the room. Older ones could also emit carbon monoxide. Therefore, if you need a new stove, gas is not the best choice.
You might want to investigate an induction range. It heats with electromagnetic energy, not thermal heat. Burners are cool enough to touch almost immediately after you turn them off. They are faster, safer, and more energy efficient than either gas or electric.
6. Water-efficient fixtures
Choose low-flow faucets for the sink. Modern building codes no longer allow the water hogs you might still find in older houses. The average faucet in the kitchen flows at about 2.2 gallons per minute. You can find more efficient faucets that flow at a rate of 1.5 gallons.
Also, investigate installing a boiling water tap. It can heat water instantly and dispense boiling water. You won’t have to wait for water to boil on the stove or in the microwave. Also, you can get exactly what you need. It’s easy to boil too much water on the stove.
7. Energy-efficient windows and window treatments
If your house has old single-pane windows, you can lower your heating bills by 12% or so by replacing them with Energy Star windows. Replacing even a single kitchen window will save some.
If your project doesn’t require replacing your windows, or if your budget doesn’t allow, you can still save considerable energy with window treatments. For example, honeycomb blinds put a layer of air between the window glass and the room. They provide good insulation as well as good control of light.
8. Energy-efficient lighting
It is no longer possible to buy old-fashioned incandescent lightbulbs in the US. They used a lot of power and generated more heat than light.
When the US started phasing them out, the best available replacement was fluorescent lighting. Curly compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) plug into the same light sockets as the old bulbs. They use about 25-35% less electricity. Unfortunately, they don’t come to full brightness as soon as you turn them on. They contain mercury, so if one burns out or breaks, it becomes a hazardous waste.
At the time, light-emitting diodes (LEDs) were not available in bulbs as bright as an old 100-watt bulb. They were also outrageously expensive. Now, they are available as bright as you need them. They last longer than CFLs. They use 75% less electricity than incandescent bulb. Each LED still costs more than a CFL, but over time, they cost less to use. They are by far the best lighting choice available today.
Be sure to plan where you want your light fixtures. Don’t forget to illuminate the counter under the cabinets.
9. Sustainable paints and finishes
When all else is finished, you’ll be repainting the walls at least. You may be painting or staining cabinets.
Many standard paints and finishes have a distinctive smell caused by volatile organic compounds (VOCs). VOCs are solids or liquids that evaporate at room temperature and ordinary atmospheric pressure. The formaldehyde in standard plywood is a VOC. Some of the ones in paints and stains are just as dangerous and probably more annoying.
Typical paints also have microplastics as a binding agent. Where VOCs are a menace to indoor air and your respiratory system, microplastics are a menace to the outdoor environment. If you use ordinary paint, every time you wash your brush you’re sending microplastics down the drain. Wastewater treatment plants cannot filter them out. They all eventually get to the ocean.
So be sure to look for paints and finishes that have neither VOCs nor microplastic binders.
Now that you’ve finished painting, you have finished your eco-friendly kitchen remodel. It’s time to enjoy your new kitchen.
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