Stopping Global Warming in the Kitchen

With a few lifestyle tweaks, you can substantially cut your contribution to global warming during the holidays and every day, and still have the merriest of times

12-01-2005 // Deborah Franklin

FAR BE IT FROM Dave Reay to be a holiday Scrooge, but the University of Edinburgh climate scientist does wish revelers would pause to count the cost of their celebrations to the environment, as well as to their bank accounts. "Consumption of everything, including energy, spikes enormously in December, from Christmas lights to extra car trips, to overpackaged food, to electronic kitchen gadgets that nobody needs," says Reay, author of the recently published book Climate Change Begins at Home. The good news: With just a few lifestyle tweaks, each of us can substantially cut our contribution to global warming during the holidays and every day, and still have the merriest of times.

Reay did the math. "It’s hard to believe, but small changes really do add up to a savings of about 1,100 tons of greenhouse gases over one person’s lifetime," he says. Starting in the kitchen is especially easy and effective. Here are some ways to save:

  • Think efficiency: Appliances are becoming more energy efficient by the minute. The most streamlined refrigerator, for example, now uses half the energy of a pre-1993 cooler. (Look for the "Energy Star" label when you shop for a new appliance to find the highest ranking by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and industry; for more information check www.energystar.gov.) Still, newest isn’t necessarily best. If your refrigerator, stove or dishwasher is less than five years old and still working, keep it, Reay advises. The hunk of buzzing steel is still working off the energy debt it piled up during its manufacture.
  • Keep it clean: Maintaining a refrigerator’s spongy seals, vents and external coils clean of "dust, mustard, ketchup and anything else that splashes there," says Reay, will ease its workload and energy draw, and can prevent nearly 450 pounds worth of greenhouse gas emissions each year. Keeping the fridge full (but not so stuffed that air can’t circulate) shrinks its energy use even more, as does moving it away from a stove or radiator. Cooking a feast? Consolidate your shopping trips and pull out at one time all the ingredients you’ll need for several recipes, to keep the fridge door mostly closed and cold air in.
  • Put a lid on it: A gas range uses 60 percent less energy than an electric stovetop. But simply covering a simmering pot will enable you to cook food at a lower heat—and use less fuel—whether you’re cooking with gas or not. Make sure, too, that the bottom of your pan covers the burner completely; flames licking the sides of the pot waste fuel. If your range is electric, turn the burner off for the last few minutes of cooking to save energy. And heat only as much water in the teakettle as you’ll use. Reay estimates that if everyone in the United Kingdom where he lives made just that one change, the energy saved each year could power two-thirds of all of Britain’s streetlights.
  • Let dishes air dry: Don’t run the dishwasher until you have a full load. Instead of using heat to dry, prop the door ajar at the wash cycle’s end to let dishes air dry.
  • Swap out the bulbs: Light is crucial in the kitchen, for safety’s sake, but you don’t need to use those watt-sucking incandescent bulbs. New compact fluorescent (CFL) bulbs provide light that’s even brighter for a third of the energy cost. And in the long run, the new ones are cheaper: Switch from a 100-watt old-fashioned bulb to a 32-watt CFL and you’ll save $30 over the life of the bulb. The EPA estimates that if every U.S. household replaced the five most frequently used bulbs with CFL versions, families would save an average of $60 per home every year and keep more than a trillion pounds of greenhouse gases out of the air. That’s an overall savings of $6 billion in the United States, and the equivalent of the annual energy output of 21 power plants.
  • Buy locally grown food in season: Some days, it’s not just how you cook, but what you prepare that pumps pounds of pollution into the air. "A bunch of grapes at a Chicago supermarket in 1972 would have traveled about 1,600 miles," Reay calculates, "but by 1989 Chile had become a major source of grapes, pushing their average food miles up to nearly 3,000." The scientist once calculated the cost in greenhouse emissions of his own lunchbox grapes, and figured they had added six times their weight in emissions to the environment before they landed on his desk. "That’s the equivalent of leaving a climate-unfriendly light bulb on all week," he says. His advice: Avoid prepackaged food from far-flung locales whenever you can.
  • Eat less meat: Gobble that turkey or ham, if that spells holiday feast to you, but consider cutting back meat consumption beginning in January to spare the air, as well as your health. "Producing meat requires up to seven times more land, not to mention water, than producing crops of the same food value," Reay says. "Just two fewer burgers or steaks a month can slash a person’s annual greenhouse gas emissions by about a third of a ton."
  • Unplug your gadgets: In a typical home, 75 percent of the energy that powers electronic appliances trickles out when the machines are turned off but left in "standby" mode. Pull the plug on the microwave, radio, television and VCR, as well as chargers for mini-vacuums and other electronics, when you’re not using them. You’ll save money and spare the environment.

Writer Deborah Franklin is based in San Francisco.

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