In honor of today's 40th Earth Day anniversary, let's talk about how we can all make our kitchens a little greener. Now I realize we're all busy and sometimes going the green route takes an extra step or minute of time. After working during the day, helping my daughters with their homework, making dinner and cleaning up, I know I am often tempted to take short cuts. For instance, do I really have to rinse out that tub of moldy sour cream so I can save the container for later use? Honestly, I just want to throw it out. And paper towels are so easy to use for cleaning off the counter. I admit that I am sometimes guilty of taking the easy road (for instance, I have yet to give up paper napkins because my two 9 year old daughters go through cloth napkins ridiculously fast and I wonder what's worse: composting paper napkins or incessantly washing dirty cloth ones?). Yet I am also making a concerted effort to take that extra step or minute when needed. What I've found is that it really isn't difficult to make a few minor adjustments in how I purchase food, handle waste, and run my kitchen so we use less energy and water and create less waste. I also discuss why I'm making these choices with my daughters so they start to think about their own environmental choices (for instance, using reams of paper to draw pictures).
Following is a list of things everyone can do to use less energy and create less waste. Contrary to what Kermit the Frog sang, it IS easy being green.
Buy from bulk bins: A 2006 EPA study determined that 'containers and packaging made up the largest portion of waste generated, 31.7 percent or 80 million tons." One great way to avoid packaging waste is to buy from bulk bins. Many stores offer bin items that you can bring home and store in your own containers (such as cereal, pasta, rice, etc.), which means you will throw out less containers. Some stores even offer olive oil and other liquid items in their bulk areas. Whole Foods, Rainbow Grocery, Berkeley Bowl and Farmer Joe's in Oakland all offer a wide array of bulk foods.
Buy Large: When purchasing food that comes in a container, buy large. For instance, choose the large yogurt container and then spoon out individual portions instead of purchasing numerous small yogurt containers for the same item. This reduces your waste to one plastic container, and is also less expensive. It also enables you to monitor the portion size instead of relying on the manufacturer's amount. Plus you can always reuse that large container (see below).
Reuse Waste: Instead of tossing out that plastic container, use it to store leftovers; as a storage container for change, pencils or something else; or give it to your kids to take to the sand lot.
Eat more whole foods and less packaged alternatives: Fresh vegetables don't come in prepackaged containers (unless you shop at Trader Joe's -- and I wish they'd stop doing that). Avoid packaged meals all together, if you can (things like Lunchables, frozen dinners, and items that come with individual servings wrapped in plastic). Packaged meals usually are served on plastic trays which are then wrapped in plastic and finally placed in boxes, creating literally tons of waste each year in our land fills. Fresh meals are also far healthier and tastier.
Purchase a to-go cup and bring it with you when buying drinks from outside vendors: Imagine how many cups just one coffee shop goes through in a single morning. Now multiply that by the number of stores in just San Francisco alone. That's a lot of trash. Now imagine how much less trash we'd generate if we all took our own reusable cup to Peet's and Starbucks. This is such an easy way to help make a big difference. Plus Starbucks is now charging 10 cents less per purchase if you use your own cup so you can even save money.
Buy local foods to reduce your grocery carbon footprint: In other words, don't be tempted by those grapes from Chile which traveled thousands of miles to get to your grocery shelf. Instead, buy something that is in season where you live and is grown nearby. The easiest way to do this is to shop at a farmer's market, but you can also find a lot of local options at a normal grocery store. We're lucky enough to live in California, where crops are abundant, so just be sure to check the little stickers that detail where your produce was grown. The same goes for meat and dairy items. Clover, Strauss Family Creamery and Berkeley Farms are all relatively close, as is Petaluma Poultry and Prather Ranch. Plus, recently-picked crops just taste better. For more on this topic, check out this article from the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture.
Use a dish towel instead of paper towels: Although that one paper towel may not seem to take up a lot of space in the trash can, five a day equals 35 a week and 140 a month. That's a lot of thrown-out paper. It's often just as easy to use a dish towel or cloth napkin. If you really need to use a paper towel, compost it afterward.
Make a No Waste Lunch: As I mentioned in a previous post, making a no waste lunch is easy and economical. Invest in some good reusable containers, including a decent thermos and some cutlery. For more on this topic, see my No Trash Lunch post.
Give up baggies: Instead store food and leftovers in reusable plastic or glass containers (maybe that old yogurt container you decided to keep instead of throwing out).
Compost! Most local cities are now offering composting as part of standard trash pickup to encourage residents to keep compostable items out of the trash. Composting has therefore become pretty easy, so just do it.
Use green cleaning supplies, including making your own: I don't need to tell you about all the green cleaning products out there, but if you haven't started using some, considering giving them a try. This is especially true for dishwashing and laundry soap, which contain phosphate additives, leading to algae blooms that consume oxygen in the water, killing fish and plants. You can also make a lot of your own cleaning supplies from items you may already have in the kitchen. Check out The Green Guide's DIY Household Cleaners article for some great tips.
Purchase reusable bags for grocery shopping: Yes, this one is obvious, but if you haven't already bought your own bags, now is the time. You can also buy reusable bags for your produce and bulk food items. Oh, and remember to keep them in the car or near your bike so you don't forget them at home.
Choose glass over plastic: Some companies are now offering glass packaging instead of plastic. For instance, Strauss Family Creamery uses glass bottles as milk containers. So, if your budget allows (as these products are often a little more expensive than competing brands) choose glass packaged products. When making your decision you should note that there is a $1.50 glass bottle deposit for Strauss milk, but you get that money back when you return the cleaned bottle to the store.
Eat a vegetarian diet at least once a week: Even if you eat humanely-raised and organic meats, all meat has a larger carbon footprint than vegetables. Mark Bittman discussed this topic at last year's TED Conferences (and if you have an extra 20 minutes, I recommend viewing his talk). According to Mr. Bittman, "[a]fter energy production, livestock is the second-highest contributor to atmosphere-altering gases. Nearly one-fifth of all greenhouse gas is generated by livestock production -- more than transportation." So whether or not you think San Francisco's new Meat Free Mondays initiative is good or bad legislation, consider foregoing meat one day a week.
Run the dishwasher only when there is a full load; air dry if possible: Running the dishwasher once a day instead of hand washing after each meal saves both water and energy. According to Tree Hugger, energy efficient dishwashers "use only half the energy and one-sixth of the water, less soap too." So, if you have a dishwasher, use it.
Buy Energy Star appliances: And as long as we're talking about appliances, if you are in the market to upgrade your kitchen, be sure to purchase Energy Star appliances, especially the fridge which is generally the single largest user of energy in the house. If you rent and have a really old refrigerator, ask your landlord to upgrade your appliance.
Recycle your plastic grocery and other small plastic bags: Most grocery stores that use plastic bags now have recycling containers where you can drop off used bags. Some residential recycling programs also pick up plastic bags. Check your trash collector's web site for more details.
Switch to compact fluorescent light bulbs in the kitchen and throughout your entire house: These bulbs use 75% less electricity and last ten times longer. What more do you need to know?
For more energy and waste-saving tips, check out these great sites:
The Green Guide
KQED's Earth Celebration 2010 page
Environmental Protection Agency
And TMC provides a list of 50 eco-friendly apps available at the iTunes store.
Please share your own tips for having a green kitchen in the comments section. I'd love to hear your ideas.