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7 Ways to Create a Sustainable Kitchen

The word sustainable is attached to everything these days, from meat to shoes to furniture and that includes our homes.

To us, sustainability means choosing local, non-toxic materials that can be replaced or regrown easily with the smallest amount of natural resources, like water and fuel. That extends from the flooring and cabinetry we use in kitchen, to the paint to decorate it, and the cleaning products to maintain it. A sustainable kitchen also makes it easy to recycle and compost. 

This way, our kitchen has the lightest impact possible on the planet and our health. It sounds like a fantasy, but it’s not. And it doesn’t require as much extra work as you think. Here are seven areas to consider if you want to create a sustainable kitchen. 

Natural Stone from the US

ABC stone Vermont Danby marble
Photo credit: @abcstone

Who doesn’t swoon over a waterfall counter clad in imported Carrara, black-and-white Panda, or black soapstone? But that stone has a lot of miles on it by the time it arrives from Italy, China or Brazil. Instead, look for stone quarried in the U.S.; the place of origin is often in the name. For a deep charcoal black stone, consider American Black Granite from Pennsylvania. Gorgeous black soapstone with white veins has been quarried in Vermont since the 1850s; it’s also found in Virginia. Dakota Mahogany is a dark burgundy, black, brown, and white granite from South Dakota.

And there’s plenty of domestic white and grey marble too. Colorado Yule is a white marble with gray veins from Colorado, and Silver Cloud is a swirled gray and white granite from Georgia. The Danby marbles from Vermont are all clean white with veins that can be gray, greenish, or golden – Martha Stewart has it in three of her kitchens – catch a glimpse here.

LED Lighting

Roll and hill Rudy loop lights
Photo credit: @rollandhill

LED lights are pretty much a no-brainer these days. Compared to conventional incandescent bulbs, LEDs use 75% less power – and they last 25 times longer, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. That makes them a popular choice for kitchens and the rest of the home. And they’re able to take on all sorts of sleek and curved shapes, so they’re fun to design with.

Low VOC Paint

Mrs mustard seed milk paint blue gray color
Photo credit: @vibekdesign for @mmsmilkpaint

There’s more to choosing paint than finding the right shade of gray, blue, or green for your cabinetry. That bad smell that can linger after the painting is a sign that it left behind toxins called volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the air.

A typical can of house paint includes VOCs like methylene chloride, benzene, and formaldehyde, which the EPA links to headaches and cancer. Happily, these days, there are many choices in low-toxin paints. The original natural paint is milk paint, made from milk protein, lime, and natural pigment. Popular brands include Miss Mustard Seed’s Milk Paint and Real Milk Paint Co. Annie Sloan Chalk Paints and Farrow & Ball paints both have minimal VOCs.

Paint lines touted as VOC-free include: Behr Premium Plus Enamel Low Luster, Benjamin Moore Natura/Aura, Sherwin Williams Harmony, and YOLO Colorhouse, but you need to do your research. Note that even “natural” paints release some chemicals, so cover your face and open a window while painting, then air out the room for a couple of days afterward.

Recycling and Composting

Here at Studio Dearborn always includes a dual recycling and trash pullout in every kitchen she designs. And if the homeowner is interested, we add a built-in bin to collect food scraps for composting. “Making it easy to access means you’re more likely to do it,” says our own Sarah Robertson. And many towns and cities pick up food scrap composting, so you don’t have to figure out what to do with it if you’re not a gardener – or worry about a raccoon invasion. 

Range Hoods + Air Flow

White kitchen range hood
Photo credit: @mif_design

We can’t see what’s happening with our indoor air, but it’s one of the most important elements of the home environment. And with all the fine drops of cooking grease and cleaning chemicals in the kitchen, you want to move them out of there. That’s where a range hood comes in.

When shopping for an exhaust hood, choose one with return or “make-up” air. Like it sounds, this replaces the greasy air that’s sucked out with fresh air, and it keeps your home’s airflow balanced. Also look into the hood’s efficiency, or how well it sucks up air. Air quality researchers at the Berkeley National Labs found that many make a lot of noise but move very little air.

Finally, make sure the hood is air is vented outside, and not into your attic. And an air purifier with a HEPA filter is always a good idea, says Jillian Pritchard Cooke, founder of Wellness Within Your Walls.

Recycled Cabinets

Renovation angel valculine kitchen
Photo credit: Renovation Angel

When a kitchen gets remodeled, did you ever stop to think about what happens to the old cabinets? Most times, they end up in a landfill, even though they’re often usable. Steve Feldman’s Renovation Angel works with homeowners and high-end kitchen designers across the U.S. to harvest those old appliances and cabinets and resell them. Since 2006, “we‘ve diverted 40 million tons of stuff from landfills and recycled 7,000 kitchens,” says Feldman. Plus, the 501(c)3 non-profit has donated $2.3 million to charity. Homeowners who donate get a hefty tax credit too. On the site recently, a sleek gray Valcucine kitchen with appliances was listed for $64,000 instead of the typical $185,000, while a $500,000 frosted ice and maple kitchen from luxe Brit brand Smallbone of Devizes were just $56,000. 

Non-Toxic Cleaning Products

Ecos dishmate grapefruit soap
Photo credit: @ecoscleans

Just like paint, cleaning products can be filled with VOCs that can wreck your home’s air quality and health. Some of the most troubling is bleach, which can irritate your skin, lungs, and eyes, and QUATs, short for quaternary ammonium compounds.

QUATs, found in many cleaning popular wipes and sprays, are registered with the EPA as pesticides. They’re linked to cause or worsen asthma, irritate skin and they’re linked to fertility problems. Plus, QUATs stay on your hands and surfaces you clean with them, like counters or doorknobs.

That’s true of all cleaning products, including the ones you use on your dishes. “When you think about cleaning products, they leave residue on plates and glasses,” says Kelly Vlakis Hanks, CEO of ECOS Earth Friendly Products. “Every single time you drink your water and eat your food you are ingesting that.” Look for plant-based products that have the word “disinfectant” along with Safer Choice and Earth Friendly product seals. Brands to look for include ECOS, Seventh Generation, and Aunt Fannie’s. Check out the Environmental Working Group’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning.