This personal essay and accompanying story appeared in the January/February 2007 issue of EAT magazine.
The Greening of the Kitchen
Contributing editor Carolyn Bateman watches a movie, sees the light and starts putting her commonsense and her buying power behind the greening of the busiest room in her house.
The house lights come up but I sit in the dim light of the theatre a few moments longer before my husband stands and motions to me. It’s time to go. We emerge into the light of a June afternoon on Yates Street. The bright sun seems harsher, the warm air somehow thicker than two hours ago. We’ve just seen An Inconvenient Truth, former U.S. vice-president Al Gore’s award-winning documentary on global warming, and, for me, the earth has tilted slightly on its axis. Since then my sense of reality has altered; this earth, this place I call home, feels more precious because I am suddenly more aware of its infinite fragility.
I’m not sure I can call myself an “environmentalist,” but environmental awareness isn’t new to me either. In the 1980s I stopped eating meat and started eating soy. Pesticides, household chemicals, aerosols, plastic wrap and paper towels were on the no-go list. I became an avid recycler and reuser. In 1989, my husband and I moved to an acre of forest on Salt Spring Island, adopting voluntary simplicity (partly by default) while our peers moved up the corporate ladder. By the late ’90s we were back in the city and I’d discovered Internet activism, taking part in letter-writing campaigns for Greenpeace, Wildcanada.net, the David Suzuki Foundation and others.
So the inconvenient truths in the film weren’t altogether shocking. But no one had ever put them together quite like that before. The magic of 24 frames a second had woken me, and literally millions of other filmgoers, up to the truth of this global crisis. But what to do with this new consciousness? What can we do? The crisis seems so out of control, so far beyond us, as individuals, to make a difference. We can be forgiven for throwing up our hands and simply not responding.
I considered that but had the uneasy feeling I’d be fiddling while Rome burned. I thought I had an environmental conscience but somehow I’d stopped paying attention. We grew and bought organic produce and staples but didn’t compost. We put our “green” cleaning products into plastic shopping bags. We were frugal with electricity but still largely switched on incandescents instead of compact fluorescents. Our thermostat was low but we hadn’t weather-stripped our house. Our late-model car gets excellent emissions ratings, but we don’t always think twice about hopping into it. Paper napkins and plastic wrap (two things I’d denounced earlier) had crept back into my kitchen.
They were small things, but for me they were adding up to something larger because I’ve always believed one person can make a difference by making small changes. It was time for me to recommit.
It’s easy to tell ourselves it’s the government that must make changes and until it does, we’re powerless. Yes, governments must respond, but I reject the notion that my contribution can’t help. Perhaps we deny we can help because then we don’t have to admit our part in the hurt. Because the earth is hurting. And not just because of what governments and industries have done. The fact is each Canadian household produces between 20 and 40 litres of hazardous waste a year, making our homes collectively the biggest single source in the country. Don’t think the energy you use at home amounts to much? In fact, the residential sector accounts for about 20 percent of global energy consumption. Wondering what your personal contribution is to greenhouse gas (GHGs) emissions? A lot. Every Canadian produces about five tonnes of GHGs every year. Add them all up and that’s more than a quarter of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions. That’s why the Liberal government issued its One Tonne Challenge. (The Conservatives stopped the program last April.)
Our home is an ecosystem and the kitchen is its epicentre. We have an opportunity to make that ecosystem sustainable. If we don’t, how can we expect the larger systems in our societies—governments, industries, corporations—to create sustainable systems. Doesn’t it, really, all come down to us. Can we expect the whole body to be healthy if individual cells are not?
I think many of us equate green living with some kind of futuristic model. We’ll all have solar panels on our organic-material homes, our garbage will be turned into alternate fuel and we’ll drive around in electric cars. The government will subsidize these miracles and all will be well. I love this notion but I don’t see it happening any time soon. But there’s a lot we can do now. We can pay attention to the resources we use, the products we buy, the waste we produce. I like to think of it as “practical activism.”
As someone who has studied various forms of meditation over the past 20 years, I can say with some certainty that the simple act of paying attention is the single most important thing any of us can do. When we pay attention, we’re usually kinder to ourselves, to each other—and to the earth. And being kinder to this beautiful blue-green planet is what it’s all about.
The Kinder KitchenThe kitchen is the heart of the home, but it’s also the nerve centre of a complex organism: the average household in a developed country. The small and simple steps I’ve outlined below can add up to a life lived more sustainably.
Lots of little tricks can save energy when you’re cooking. Pot sizes should match the burners used. And put a lid on it! Some foods, like pasta, can cook with no heat at all once they develop a good head of steam.
Preheating your oven is only important for baking. Popping casseroles, even roasts, into a cold oven is not a culinary faux-pas. And turn the oven off 15 minutes early on a roast. The oven will stay hot.
Sometimes smaller appliances do the job better. Plug in an electric kettle rather than firing up a burner, and boil only as much water as you need. A microwave or toaster oven does small jobs using half the energy of a stove. Steaming vegetables uses less water and energy than boiling them and retains more nutrients. If everyone used a French press for their coffee instead of an inefficient drip coffeemaker, Canada could probably save a few million dollars in electricity (and drink better coffee).
The focus on climate change has made us aware of the energy we use these days, but there are safety issues in the kitchen too. What other stuff are we putting into our environment (and ourselves) besides greenhouse gases? Non-stick coatings on pots and pans have been under scrutiny for some time. The problem seems to be chemicals called PHOs. My non-stick electric frypan has reached the end of its lifecycle. I won’t be replacing it. Cast iron actually develops its own non-stick coating naturally through seasoning. Websites such as thegreenguide.com and responsibleshopper.org can help with more detailed information. Do some research, stay current and decide for yourself. If something concerns you, send a letter or an email to the manufacturer, your MP or federal health minister Tony Clement. (A respectful letter in your own words is an important political act.)
Fridges and stoves are most efficient when clean and well-maintained. Get behind your fridge every six months and dust off the coils so heat dissipates. And keeping it well-organized cuts down on hang-time at the door trying to find that bottle of truffle oil. Refrigerators are real energy eaters, but when comfortably full (not overcrowded) they’ll stay colder and air circulates better. If you’ve got a second one in the garage and don’t use it much, consider having BC Hydro take it away and recycle it. They’ll pay you $30.
Ensure oven/stove elements and reflectors are clean. Are the door seals working? Close the oven door on a piece of paper; if you can pull it out, the seals are loose and heat is escaping, along with your money. And that just means more carbon emissions into our air (especially now that the B.C. government is planning to build two coal-fired generators. One has to wonder what century they think it is.)
I love my dishwasher and wouldn’t want to part with it. But it’s run at full capacity only, with biodegradable soap and the dry cycle off.
Where do your cleaning products come from and what’s in them? Locally made products like those of Victoria’s Dusting Divas are natural, non-toxic and didn’t spend hours in a truck getting here. Vinegar, baking soda, essential oils like eucalyptus and pine, Murphy’s pure vegetable oil soap, commercially made orange oil cleaner, Dusting Diva’s soft scrub and Soap Exchange dishwashing soap are under my kitchen sink these days. The Soap Exchange, a Saskatchewan company, makes a line of safe, water-soluble, biodegradable household products. If you decide to clear out the toxic waste in your home and garage, make sure you dispose of it at the proper facility. In Victoria, that’s the Hartland Recycling Area. Don’t put it in your curbside garbage.
Are you still cleaning with paper towels? Cotton rags, tea towels and dishcloths work better and brand-name manufacturers use pulp made from ancient forests. Don’t encourage them. I have one roll that I ended up with after a family member moved from house to apartment. I’ve had it for two years and don’t know whether to recycle it or use it. Call it a green dilemma.
Let’s talk garbage. What are you putting it in? Plastic shopping bags? So was I until a few months ago. After all, we have to do something with them; they seem to multiply like rabbits under the sink. About five trillion plastic shopping bags are made worldwide each year and most end up in landfills. The plastic shopping bag has become a modern addiction and I may need a 12-step cure. We have a handmade sign hanging from our car’s rearview mirror now: “When shopping shop—but bring your own bags.” I’m doing better, however, since I found truly biodegradable garbage bags made of cornstarch and available at health-food stores (BioBag and Ecosafe, both Vancouver-based companies, are the ones I’ve spotted). I’ll recycle the others.
Buy a composter or a worm bin if you live in an apartment—you’ll be amazed at how much it cuts down your garbage. You can even get something called a backyard “digester” that will compost things like meat and pet waste. Don’t ask me how it works, I’m not sure I want to know. In Victoria, visit the Greater Victoria Compost Education Centre at www.compost.bc.ca. Try not to rely solely on your curbside pickup for recycling. Just about anything you can think of—from clothes hangers to concrete to plastic bags—can be recycled somewhere. Consult www.crd.bc.ca/es/recycle in Victoria for more information.
Ever since the first postwar housewife had her first Tupperware party back in 1946, plastic has been a mainstay of kitchen storage. Personally, I think plastics may turn out to be the modern equivalent of the lead pipes that helped do in the Roman Empire. We’re inundated with plastic in every area of our lives, but particularly in the kitchen. One of the worst plastics, from both an environmental and health standpoint, is polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Bottles, cling wraps and plastic trays in packaged foods can all contain PVC. I try to avoid plastic but it’s tough. I’m starting to invest in lidded glass containers for food storage or reuse wide-mouthed glass jars. And I’m replacing cling wrap with foil and waxed paper, although neither are great alternatives. We’ve become such a profligate society, throwing away plastic pens, cups, plates, cutlery, water bottles (and more water bottles), razors, contact lenses, even disposable headsets on some airlines (yes, Air Canada, you!). When will the madness stop. Only if we pay attention and break the throwaway habit.
Next time you’re in a hardware store, buy compact fluorescents bulbs and put them in your lamps and light fixtures. Don’t wait until the old ones die. Standard bulbs waste about 90 per cent of their electricity on heat. Who knew Edison had been so sloppy in his design? New compact fluorescent “spiral” bulbs are 75 percent more efficient and fit in standard sockets. We’ve been using them for a couple of years now and can’t tell the difference.
Are you eating a lot of packaged and processed foods? We know they’re not good for us. And they put a lot of garbage into the waste stream. But there’s another, more insidious reason for cutting down on packaged foods. The chemicals in the packaging could be contaminating our food and our environment. There’s lots of information on the Internet. Stay informed and make smart choices for yourself and your family.
You can make a start by just saying “no” to bottled water. Two-thirds of the 40 billion plastic bottles produced in the U.S. annually end up in landfills. Sorry I don’t have Canadian figures, but you do the math. More and more, the experts, from the David Suzuki Foundation to Health Canada, are telling us that just because water comes in a bottle doesn’t mean it’s better than city water. In many cases, municipal water can be more stringently regulated. Using water judiciously and putting good-quality carbon filters on our taps or in a carafe system is a better way to go.
When we honour the small things of life, they can add up to big changes. Each and every day we can contribute to a lifestyle that is kinder, gentler and more respectful of the earth and its finite resources. We can do that by paying closer attention to what we consume and how we consume it, slowing our lives down a little to make some space for this new awareness. After all, as Gandhi said, “Speed is irrelevant if we’re going in the wrong direction.”
Although its information is scattered hither and yon, the Web is an amazing source for more tips and strategies. Two great places to start: the Nature Challenge page at the David Suzuki Foundation website, www.davidsuzuki.org, and www.greenpeace.org/canada/en/take-action/greentips.
Top 10 Actions for a Greener Kitchen Now
1. Switch lights off when not in use and change incandescent bulbs to compact fluorescents.
2. Give your car a rest: gang up shopping trips, walk or cycle.
3. Go carbon neutral: offset carbon emissions with renewable energy certificates (REC’s)*.
4. Buy local, organic food and eat less meat.
5. Recycle as much as possible.
6. Use appliances to maximum capacity. A full (not crowded) fridge works better than an empty one; full dishwashers save water. Microwaves and toaster ovens use less energy than conventional ovens; use for small jobs.
7. Replace old appliances with Energy Star units.
8. Buy green cleaning products or make your own.
9. Compost your kitchen waste and shun over-packaged products to reduce garbage.
10. Use dishtowels or rags instead of paper towels. Many popular brands use virgin forests.
(*For more information, go to www.davidsuzuki.org and click the “Go Carbon Neutral” link.)