Cleaner, lighter living in the new year may
come more easily than you think
Glass tile samples at greenspace.
Photography by Michelle Magdalena, Angela Aurelio and Joanne Chow Winship
“The kitchen is the heart of the home,” says Tanja Roos, executive director of MEarth, the environmental education nonprofit in Carmel Valley. “The kitchen sets the tone for the household—not to mention uses much of the home’s resources.”
Indeed, refrigeration and cooking, along with lighting, account for more than 40% of the average American home’s energy use. As a result, experts say the kitchen is the place to start if one of your goals for the new year is to make your home a little greener.
The hard part, perhaps, is remembering to not get overwhelmed— and to just get started. Fortunately, thanks to an ever-expanding network of sustainability-minded nonprofits and businesses in our area, the task is only getting easier and more rewarding.
“You would be surprised how well you feel in a green kitchen,” says Big Sur green architect Libby Barnes, of the firm de sola.barnes. “Standing in a place that you know has been carefully planned for and has taken into consideration the health and well-being of the occupants and the planet brings a feeling of great satisfaction.”
Also among those out there to help you are Sarah Yee and Kris Bonifas, who just this past summer launched a Carmel Valley-based consulting company, PureHabitats, to share with others what they learned when their children’s severe allergies drove them to create toxin- free homes.
Since conventional building materials and cleaners are often toxic for humans and the surrounding environment, this took some focus. But they say the changes they made have improved their whole families’ quality of life.
“We’re doing this to show that it’s easy, to hold your hand through it, tackle one area at a time,” Yee says of PureHabitats’ mission. “We’re not here to judge, we’re just here to help make it easier.”
“These are things that can happen over time,” adds Bonifas. “You don’t have to get yourself into a panic that you need to overhaul your home overnight.”
In fact, a total redo isn’t necessarily recommended if sustainability is what you’re after.
“Tearing out your whole kitchen and replacing with NEW is not the greenest solution,” Barnes says. “A new coat of [nontoxic] non- VOC paint, new lighting and even new cabinet fronts or just handles can make a huge difference.” (See “A CLEAN SLATE,” p. 50.)
A kitchen designed by de sola.barnes architects.
THE LOW-HANGING FRUIT
When surveying a kitchen, Bonifas says, one of the first “red flags” she and Yee look for is cleaning products. “Ammonia, chlorine bleach, Teflon, plastic—anything that’s toxic that your food is going to come in contact with and that you’re going to come in contact with,” says Bonifas. “These are things you can easily replace.”
John Robbins, a Santa Cruz environmental leader and author of the 2010 conscious living guidebook, The New Good Life: Living Better Than Ever in an Age of Less, agrees.
“In almost every case, substituting greener products creates a healthier home without sacrificing cleanliness,” he says, adding toxic oven and drain cleaners to Bonifas’ list of dangerous items to toss.
The trick in finding effective green cleaners is avoiding brands that are loaded with fillers, says Kristi Reimers, a leader in the Carmel sustainability community and proprietor of Eco Carmel, which provides environment-friendly products for the home. Two of those she stands behind are Sodasan, which comes from Germany, and OHc (Organic Household Cleaner), which is made in Fresno.
Another way to make sure your cleaners aren’t stuffed with fillers—and save money at the same time—is to make them yourself.
Just ask Cynthia Walter, co-owner with her husband, chef Ted Walter, of Passionfish, a Pacific Grove green-certified restaurant.
Walter has perfected the art of natural, easy-to-make cleaners for both the restaurant and her home in Carmel Valley. Nearly everything in her domain is cleaned with white vinegar and baking soda. An exception is hand-washed dishes, which are cleansed with Dr. Bronner’s certified organic, fair trade castile soaps. (For an added kick, she lets orange and tangerine rinds soak in vinegar for about a month, lending the strength of orange oil to her vinegar and baking soda brew.)
But how well do her homemade products work?
Walter claims the dishwasher detergent she concocts—one cup each of borax and washing soda plus a half-cup each of kosher salt and citric acid—actually works better than the conventional dishwasher soaps she’s tried.
A clogged drain is no match for her either. A dose of baking soda, then some vinegar, followed by boiling water 15 minutes later has never failed her. “Baking soda and vinegar will clear your drains in a heartbeat,” she explains. “It chews up whatever is down there.”
But most important to her is that, wherever these powerhouse ingredients are used or stored, she can rest assured that they will do no harm. “My grandchildren can go in there and climb around afterward and won’t end up with a chemical in their system that shouldn’t be there,” Walter says.
Another benefit of ridding your home of toxic chemicals is improved air quality, Yee notes.
“Whether you use it or not, what you bring into your home is making a difference—it’s off gassing, putting those chemicals into your breathing environment,” she says.
RETHINKING YOUR STUFF
Part of reducing your kitchen’s environmental impact is reducing what it sends to the landfill. For example, ditching single-use products like paper towels, napkins and plates, as well as plastic utensils, bags and containers will cut down on what you toss. It will also save you time and money as you scratch disposable items off your shopping list.
What’s more, many synthetic materials designed to be disposable contain BPA, a chemical that can seep into foods and beverages. Glass, ceramic and stainless steel are healthier, more attractive, and longer- lasting options for storing food at home. As for sending food off in lunch boxes, specially made cloth pouches and wraps make sustainable substitutes for plastic sandwich bags and can be found at area green merchants as well as shops that specialize in local products and gifts, like Hollister’s San Benito Bene.
A desire to avoid buying single-use liquid detergent and soap containers—and frustration with trying to find places that could provide refills—prompted Nicole Martin to open Ma’s Green Living in Pacific Grove last year.
Now, she stocks bulk refills of natural dish and laundry soap as well as other helpful products for greening your kitchen, from alternative dishtowels and sponges to reusable drink straws, produce bags and shopping bags.
Even trash can liners can be found in greener versions thanks to Santa Cruz-based Reusable Solutions Group, which recently launched a line of reusable anti-microbial liners made from post-consumer recycled plastic. (Bonus: proceeds go to local environmental literacy programs for youth.)
Photos by Michelle Magdalena
Each year we Americans throw away nearly half of the food our country produces, and nearly all of it ends up in landfills, where it produces methane, a much more potent and damaging greenhouse gas than the carbon dioxide our cars emit.
The best solution for curbing this cycle is to buy perishables in small quantities, as you need them. And when you do stow perishables in your fridge, a good tactic to make sure that they aren’t lost and forgotten is to list them on a whiteboard in your kitchen.
But inevitably, the best of intentions won’t prevent all food waste, and this is where composting comes in.
If you have any room to compost—be it with a simple open-air pile or a fancy enclosed system—it will transform some of the regret you may feel when throwing away rotten fruits and vegetables into feelings of pleasure in knowing that you’re making food for your garden.
At a minimum, all composting requires is setting up the aforementioned bin or pile, regularly depositing your food scraps into it and occasionally turning them over. An abundance of classes and incentives exist locally for those who would like to learn more. (See “STARVE THE DUMP, FEED YOUR GARDEN, p. 53.)
It’s likely that local municipalities will eventually offer home food scrap collection services, much like they do for restaurant scraps and home recyclables, and at that time home composting won’t be necessary—unless you want to make your own fertilizer. (An interagency composting program is currently in the planning stages across Santa Cruz County, for instance.)
In the meantime, MEarth’s Roos recommends setting up a simple, organized waste system.
“Create a space in your kitchen where you have clearly designated areas, all in one spot, for your food waste, recycling and landfill trash. Have it clearly labeled so [people] understand that it’s part of the culture of your kitchen,” she says. “We’re creatures of habit and convenience, so if it’s all right there, it will be easier.”
APPLY THOUGHT TO YOUR APPLIANCES
Experts say that conserving resources is one of the most important considerations in greening your kitchen, and swapping out old, less efficient appliances translates into savings in energy, water and money.
According to Consumer Reports, a product with a government- backed EnergyStar rating will use 10–15% less energy—and sometimes much less water—than older appliances, and that can add up to hundreds of dollars of savings over a product’s lifetime.
Gas ovens are 50% more efficient than electric ovens. Even better, use a crockpot, slow cooker or solar oven. Solar ovens make particular sense in the sunnier parts of our area, because, given sufficient sun alongside your grill, they harness free, renewable energy from the sun and they don’t overheat your kitchen. (See “FOR THE EARLY ADOPTER IN THE HOUSE,” p. 52.)
It may come as a surprise to some, but the dishwasher wins out as being more eco-friendly than hand washing. Doing a full load of dishes uses 35% less water and energy (factoring out pre-washing) than it would take to wash those dishes by hand, according to the Department of Energy.
Even more energy and water can be saved using low-flow faucets, solar water heaters and on-demand water heaters, which heat only the water you need, as you need it, says Roos. (See “DRYING UP YOUR WATER WASTE” p. 54.)
But if your appliance is reasonably efficient and simply breaks down, the green response is to fix it rather than toss it.
“There is a cost to throwing things away, whether at the landfill or recycling center,” explains Tim Brattan, executive director at Grey Bears, a nonprofit that serves the Santa Cruz senior community. “If we can first try to repair things, then we’ve extended their productive life. That’s good for us and good for the environment.”
In conjunction with Habitat for Humanity Santa Cruz County, Grey Bears offers a free “Repair Café” a few times a year, at which trained “fixers” take a stab at repairing appliances—big or small—that anyone can bring in.
Grey Bears also offers free pickup for those looking to donate or recycle unwanted appliances.
And no matter the age or efficiency of your appliances, remembering to unplug them when they aren’t in use saves the “vampire energy” that is sucked up and wasted by gadgets even when they’re turned off.
Roos making her own environment-friendly cleansers in the MEarth kitchen.
Getting back to food—after all, storing, preparing and enjoying food are the principal purposes of the kitchen—it’s worth considering whether this is the year for you to step up your commitment to making more sustainable food choices.
Perhaps you’ve been following the Environmental Working Group’s well-publicized “Dirty Dozen” suggestions, and you buy organic when it comes to those 12 items that EWG says carry the most pesticide residues.
But if you want to think beyond your personal health, and choose foods that are good for our broader community and the environment, too, you might want to think about what happens to all the pesticides that are sprayed on the hundreds of types of produce that don’t make it onto the Dirty Dozen list. Where do those pesticides go? Do they harm the farmworkers who apply them and harvest the produce? Do the pesticides quickly break down or do they poison the earth for many years to come?
The fact is, choosing to buy all your food in organic form is better for everyone, because it protects air, soil and water quality, and also helps fight global warming. In particular, it protects farmworker families against pesticide poisoning. It’s not a perfect guarantee of sustainability, but it’s the best we have.
According to the Rodale Institute, if all 434 million acres of farmland in the United States were converted to organic methods, the reduction in greenhouse gasses would equal pulling 88% of the cars in the U.S. off the road.
It’s also earth-wise to reduce your food’s transportation footprint, which can be done by purchasing locally grown and produced foods, joining a Community Supported Agriculture program, or better yet, if it’s viable for you, growing your own food.
But when it comes to eating green, nothing beats eating lower on the food chain. A 2008 study at Carnegie Mellon University titled “Food Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States” found that eating no meat one day a week reduces personal greenhouse gas emissions more than eating an entirely local diet all week long. And it’s no wonder that fish that are low on the food chain—such as squid and sardines—are also high on the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program’s list of recommended sustainable seafood. (The list itself should be every sustainable shopper’s guide to purchasing seafood.)
Just keep in mind that it matters a lot which meat you choose and how it was raised. Conventionally raised animal products have the biggest environmental price tag of any foods out there because of the amount of water, land, food and energy required to produce them compared to plant foods, as well as the methane the animals expel.
However, some studies have shown that by contrast, grassfed meat operations can benefit the environment. (See “IS BEEF BACK?” on p. 38.) Therefore, if you eat meat and want to consider the environment when you purchase it, you’ll want to choose grassfed, preferably locally raised.
MAKING IT HAPPEN
Chances are, at least a few of the green practices that we’ve covered here are already routine for you. You may even have adopted most, or perhaps you are just getting started.
No matter where you are on the path of greening your kitchen, the important thing to remember is that each step you take to make your kitchen a little greener adds up to making your home—as well as our community and the planet—healthier places for everyone. And because of that, every step is worth your while.
“If each and every household changes its behavior,” says MEarth’s Roos, “collectively it has a very big impact.”
A CLEAN SLATE: GREEN REMODELS
After her home burned down in an electrical fire in 2008, Santa Cruz County resident Cheryl Potter saw a silver lining and seized an opportunity to build as sustainable a home as possible—from scratch. However, skeptical of fads and dubious offers she saw as part of the green building boom, Potter decided to do all of her own research and act as her own general contractor.
“Most people can’t afford a lot of the cool new green items out there, but if you rebuild, you can potentially rebuild a home green at the same cost as a regular one,” says Potter, who organizes environment-focused events in Santa Cruz. “You have to know what you’re doing, though.”
Truth is, most of us don’t. And many of us also don’t have the time to do our own research or oversee the design and construc- tion process. So we’re extremely fortunate to have a number of pro- fessionals in our area who are experienced with green design. Assembling the right team is critical, and doing so will increase the odds you’ll be happy with the kitchen you end up with—and that you’ll avoid some of the pitfalls associated with green remodels along the way.
One of the potential problems that Gary Courtright, the owner of Carmel Kitchens & Baths, tries to help his customers steer clear of is the green-washing he sees sweeping over the industry.
For example, he says the surge in popularity of bamboo led to not-so-sustainable methods being marketed as though they were in fact sustainable.
“A nice ‘green’ product was thus no longer green in my book,” Courtright explains. “In fact, a lot of green materials are imported without the same oversight as our domestic products and have the same sad environmental impact as the [the unsustainable] bamboo.” To avoid greenwashed materials, Courtright’s company looks for products with oversight that can be traced with a paper trail to prove their sustainability.
Meanwhile, local stores such as Eco Carmel and greenspace can make shopping for sustainable materials from paint to coun- tertops easier, and there are local construction firms, like Kenneth Chrisman Construction of Carmel Valley, that can be relied on for extensive experience in green building. Designers who can help include those at the architecture firms de sola.barnes and William C. Kempf and the design firms Beyond the Box, Carmel Kitchens & Baths, Emanate Design and greenspace.
One challenge that’s a given when contemplating a green kitchen project, says de sola.barnes’ Libby Barnes, is that the proj- ect will take time—probably more time than a conventional one, because rather than being a “one-stop shop at the local big box con- struction outlet,” choosing and sourcing materials can be a longer process.
But the end product need not be more expensive than a conventional high-quality remodel. In fact, it can even cost less.
“Some green materials can be more expensive than conventional materials because more effort has been taken on the back side to acquire the materials, but then you can offset those bigger ticket items with less expensive items elsewhere,” Barnes says. “Our firm did a bathroom with a beautiful locally made tile which, when pur- chased at standard price, was $35 per square foot. But when we went to the factory and picked out seconds, it came down to $7 per square foot.”
And when a full-blown remodel isn’t in the cards, greenspace’s Lydia Corser suggests a fresh coat of paint that contains little or no volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are carcinogens that are found in conventional paints and pollute indoor air quality.
“With minimal investment, you can freshen up, update and breathe new life into a kitchen” with new paint, says Corser, whose shop sells low-VOC paints, as does Kristi Reimers’ Eco Carmel.
“The conventional options are cheaper,” Reimers says, “but what is the final cost—for people and for the planet?” —EL
FOR THE EARLY ADOPTER IN THE HOUSE: SOLAR OVENS
Lydia Corser of greenspace using her solar oven.
Photo by Angela Aurelio
Solar ovens are brilliantly simple converters of the sun’s rays to heat energy. If you have a cardboard box, some foil and a piece of glass lying around, you can make one for free, and you’ll never have to pay for energy to run it. There are also many store-bought options, like those found at Lydia Corser’s store greenspace. We asked Corser, who uses a solar oven at home, what they’re all about. Brand of solar oven used: Sun Oven
How long have you had it? About six years.
Why did you decide to get a solar oven? A lot of our customers at greenspace wanted us to stock them, so we did. I started taking it to home shows to demonstrate it by baking cookies.
What is it best used for? I think it’s best used as a slow cooker. Soup is ideal.
What are the pros and cons compared to a conventional oven? Obviously, you need a sunny day, and day length also weighs in. Practice makes perfect, for sure. People who use them all the time get the best results, because they learn good tricks for making them work, like turning it slightly as the sun moves in the sky to keep the optimum and consistent temperature inside. I think it’s another great way to stay in touch with nature. Using the solar oven takes you outside and makes you aware of the sun’s position in the sky.
For those who have already greened their kitchens, are solar ovens a good next step? I think it’s a great tool in your toolbox of non-polluting ways to prepare and enjoy delicious food. Also, on a hot day, when we are all loath to heat up the kitchen indoors, we don’t have to. I call kitchen appliances power tools for projects, and the solar oven truly is one, but without drawing electricity or overheating space. It’s incredibly satisfying to use. – EL
DRYING UP WATER WASTE: A CHECKLIST
Even if winter rains are falling as you read this, it’s good to re- member that with water levels in our underground aquifers at historic lows and sinking all the time, preserving water is a key part of green living in the Monterey Bay area—no matter the season. Simply paying close attention to how much you use is a first step in coming up with ways to cut down; recycling whatever you can by using it to water your houseplants or garden is a second. But if you’re looking for some guidance for really making a difference, here are several ideas to get you started:
When you’re cooking:
- Wash fruits and veggies in a tub or pan rather than letting the faucet run.
- If you need to run the tap, collect the unused water in a pitcher or bucket and use it later to water plants and trees.
- Kick the habit of thawing frozen food with hot water. Instead, try to plan ahead and place frozen food in the refrigerator overnight to thaw.
- Use the right sized pot for steaming or boiling food—too-big pots use more water unnecessarily
- Use the dishwasher. Newer models in particular use far less water (about 35% less, according to the Department of En- ergy) than washing by hand. Just wait until it’s full to run it.
- Time to replace your dishwasher? Compare models on the Consortium for Energy Efficiency website (www.cee1.org). Once you install it, cut back on pre-rinsing dishes: newer mod- els are much more efficient than older ones.
- Whether you’re hand washing or using a dishwasher, first scrape food off dishes rather than blasting it off with water.
- If you wash by hand, limit water waste by using two wash- basins: one with wash water and one with rinse water.
- Instead of running the tap while scrubbing pots and pans clean, soak them in warm soapy water before washing.
- For hot water without the wait—and waste of running it until it’s hot—consider a tankless water heater. The upfront invest- ment is steep, but they deliver hot water instantly, making them 22% more energy efficient than gas-fired storage-tank models, according to Consumer Reports—so they conserve both energy and water. But if you need it to pay for itself, beware it could take many years.
- Another way to reduce heating time for water—and needlessly running the tap until it’s hot—is to better insulate your hot water pipes.
- Install low-flow aerators on your faucets. They cost less than $5 and save 3.5 gallons of water per minute.
- Replace your sink faucet with one that has the WaterSense label. On average, WaterSense-labeled products are 20% more water efficient than their counterparts.
- Use one glass or reusable water bottle for drinking water each day to cut down on the number of cups that need to be washed.
- Don’t run the tap while waiting for water to get cold. Instead, keep a pitcher of water in the fridge for cool drinking water.
- Ice left in your glass after you’ve drained your drink? Or ice accidentally dropped on the ground? Don’t toss them in the sink. Make a habit of dropping them on the soil of a houseplant or into a jug of water that will later be used to water plants. (Or pitch them in your compost bucket, if you use one.)
- Watch for leaks and fix them fast. Just a single dripping faucet can waste hundreds of gallons of water over the course of a year. —EL
Elizabeth Limbach is an award-winning journalist living in Santa Cruz, California. In this fruitful region and beyond, she finds the intersections of food, ag, health and the environment to be the most intriguing realms to write about. A bookworm and vegan foodie, the San Diego native has lived in Santa Cruz for a decade, relishing its redwood forests, fresh produce, delicious wines, and sparkling sea.