29 April 2009

Every Day is Earth Day

Earth Day (one week ago) caused a moment of reflection for me on the increased awareness I have experienced, and changes I have made, for being "green" over the last few years. I can safely say that three years ago, even two years ago, I barely recycled. What a chore to sort and carry items to the appropriate bins! I cared not a whit about energy or water conservation. People who shunned plastic bags seemed a little bit extreme and unrealistic.

Two major life events occurred since then: (1) I had a baby and (2) I moved to very green Portland, OR. The first event caused me to inevitably learn more about toxins, health, sustainability of the earth, etc. Suddenly, it was now important to not only set a good example for the next generation, but also to leave this world a better place, or at the very least shoot for a mediocre status quo. Moving to Oregon also clearly influenced me, in making a green attitude fairly mainstream and in making green resources easily accessible. I won't go into everything we do, but I was mildly amused yesterday as I realized I had just helped a neighbor with some composting tips.

Right, so this blog is about KITCHENS. In late 2007, I realized our move to Portland was imminent and I thought "hmm, I must learn about green kitchen design if I ever hope to have a career there." I set about my default initial research step: google. As I sorted and sifted through information, I realized there is much debate about how to define "green." How to measure "green." How to implement "green." This stuff was (and still is) all over the place. There was a smattering of "real" certifications (LEED, FSC, etc), but there were also some really fake marketing-oriented trendy "certifications" to keep you confused (I won't name those). The very same counter materials that some people thought were green, others thought were the opposite. There was far from any unanimous consensus or direction in the industry, at least as far as I could tell. Quite overwhelming when my goal was a scattershot broad-based effort to "learn as much about green kitchens as I can."

I have continued to patiently follow my various online resources for green and keep my eyes and ears open. I've attended the occasional green building classes and lectures. Being a full-time mom, I haven't done any deep dives into specific topics, but I have faithfully been skimming the top layer, if you will, for two years now. Here's my current take on organizing my thinking around "green kitchens":

Lower Carbon Footprint
Choose material and parts that reduce the carbon footprint (primarily through lowering fuel consumption)

o Consider distance that a source product has traveled from its source (e.g. almost all bamboo comes from China)

o Consider method of transport – in order from best choices to worst choices: boat, land vehicle, air

o Consider weight of material (e.g. natural stone shipped from Brazil is very heavy and thus requires more fuel to ship)

o Focus on proper house insulation (e.g., use efficient windows with a low e value) as well as appliance insulation (choose appliances with more insulation, e.g. self cleaning ovens often have more insulation than regular ovens)

o Include lots of natural light in design, to reduce dependence on artificial light and the energy it requires

o When choosing lighting, use low energy options – CFLs, LED

o Choose Energy Star appliances and read the yellow energy label (fridges, freezers, dishwashers). Minimize number and size of appliances that are “always on” (fridges, freezers, ice makers).

o Be conscious of fuel type. Renewable energy (electricity) is generally better than non-renewable (oil, gas)

o For the energy that is used, use it efficiently. For example, induction cooking directly uses 84% of the energy produced. Gas cooktops only use 40% of the energy produced by burning fuel (the rest goes primarily to heating the air around the cooking vessel)

o Try to build small and smart. Larger square footage requires more material, which then in turn incurs more fuel consumption. Also, consider material used per square foot. For example, using open shelving or frameless cabinets in your design generally requires less material than traditional framed cabinetry.

Environmental Stewardship
Be proactive in protecting and sustaining the environment (beyond greenhouse gas issues)

o Choose materials that have been sustainably harvested from the Earth, i.e. using good environmental practices (i.e. protecting wildlife, water, air, other) (e.g. FSC-certified lumber)

o Choose materials that can be and are easily renewed (e.g. bamboo)

o Or, choose materials that include recycled content (e.g. recycled glass countertops)

o Also consider durability of a material; if it is claimed using good environment practice but will then wear out in a few years, then you are setting up a cycle of guaranteed consumption. Cheap can be expensive.

o Choose low flow faucets and efficient dishwashers (Energy Star) to conserve water resources

o Keep stuff out of landfills. Use salvaged materials. Donate discarded materials for reuse. Consider if your material choice is biodegradable or recyclable

o Choose construction companies that proactively employ green policies and guidelines, such as recycling construction waste.

o Choose products from companies that make efforts to reduce manufacturing waste

Protect health through avoidance and ongoing removal of toxic materials that pollute indoor air

o Use non-toxic materials in construction (e.g. avoid urea formaldehyde used in resins in particleboard, flooring, and other materials; use low-/no-voc paint and finishes, etc)

o Avoid toxic finishes (sealers, etc) that can touch foods and leach or flake

o Provide both natural and machine ventilation to provide new air into space and to allow toxins/airborne cooking byproducts to escape. (Natural ventilation – windows, skylights that open; machine ventilation – venthoods that remove air to the outside, exhaust fans.) If your machine ventilation needs are high, consider also supplying makeup air to bring fresh air back into the room.

o Use surfaces that are easily cleaned and maintained with healthy solutions (e.g. grout is one to avoid because it is hard to clean well with gentle cleaners)

Support green habits in everyday living
Use good kitchen design to encourage a lifestyle that honors the first three goals

o Provide for easily accessed recycling containers

o Incorporate composting space into the kitchen

o Provide ample and easily accessible storage and/or hooks for kitchen towels, cloth napkins, reusable plates, cups, utensils. Also consider storage for reusable bags

o Encourage ongoing efficient water use with hands-free faucets – either electronic sensors or using foot pedals to turn on water

o Incorporate living plants into the design to help clean the air

o Plan carefully for fresh food storage to promote healthy diet/nutrition

I wonder if two years from now, I will come back to this post and wonder "oh what was I naively thinking?" There is still so much to learn!


mom2reese said...

Good post. You can add "Don't get a standalone icemaker" to your list of green advice. I was pretty bummed when I recently learned how they actually work (and also rather stupid considering that we had one for years). Maybe I can wean Jim from his excessive need for ice by the time we build our next kitchen.

Rachele said...

You know, I had looked up ice makers and expected the yellow energy label to be much higher than it was. It's basically the same as the undercounter two-drawer fridge as I will be putting into my own kitchen. Not saying that cutting out the ice maker wouldn't be better than having it, however. Clearly I'm just talking about energy usage, not water usage as well which is a consideration.

Also if the icemaker requires a pump-type drain (ie other than a gravity drain) then there's that energy use as well.

I know only a bit about icemakers, really -- there's surely other considerations! :)

mom2reese said...

I've been afraid to look up the water consumption. I had wrongly just assumed that it worked like a standard freezer icemaker (that makes more ice as you use it) rather than how it actually works (where it's in a constant state of melting/making new ice regardless of whether you use it or not.) I guess it's not *that* much ice compared to an extra five minutes in the shower, but it still seems pretty wasteful.

Rachele said...

part of the problem I have had in digging into green is what you allude to -- how to quantify? We could probably figure out the exact water consumption difference between 5 minutes in the shower vs one day of ice maker water consumption. But that's just one aspect of green. What about when you're trying to balance everything?

Take for example, bamboo. Easily renewed but a high transportation toll. Does one aspect trump or cancel out the other? How do we calculate that? It's not like you can answer these questions in binary yes/no answers -- "how much" is a really important consideration.

All I have successfully concluded is that (1) there is no consistent formula for determining "green-ness" (unless you are going for LEED points) and (2) for now, everyone has to identify what their green desires are, and their acceptable trade-offs, to reach their own personal priorities for "green."

It will be interesting to watch as some of these topics gain clearer definitions and measurements over time.

Ace's Lady said...

I, too, have come to the conclusion that some "greener" items we may want to use (bamboo flooring, for example) are not necessarily the best fit (two dogs, and three kids with bamboo floors?!?!? I don't think so!).

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