Clean up your act in the kitchen
Making your kitchen eco-friendly will benefit the environment and your family's health in the long run. Reports by Elizabeth Horscroft
If you are serious about reducing your energy consumption and helping the planet, the second thing to do once you've turned off your air conditioner, is to green your kitchen.
The kitchen is an energy hog in the home, largely due to the number of appliances that feed off electricity. Yet experts say that creating an eco-friendly kitchen goes beyond changing what you can see, and includes strategies such as improving air quality and eradicating the use of toxic chemicals.
Going green can have its pitfalls though, as it means asking if the products you are buying are actually as green as the manufacturer claims they are.
'We have to consider how the product is made and where [the company that makes it] disposes of its waste in order for it to be truly environmentally friendly,' said Diane Urmeneta, an interior designer with IF Collection.
Bruce Harwood, general manager of Palladio Kitchens, agreed. 'Only if they can show a certificate can you trust it. I imagine that many local suppliers would not be able to do that because their products are made in China in factories they have no control over. It might not be as environmentally friendly as you had hoped.'
Another drawback is the cost. While the quality and designs have improved in recent years and rival the more conventional products, prices for these niche items are high.
Mr Harwood estimated that it would cost 5 to 10 per cent more to have an environmentally friendly kitchen fitted. He said clients in Hong Kong rarely asked for green options in their kitchen designs, and it was not high on their priority list. But energy-efficient appliances were a more common request.
The flipside of high initial costs is improved energy efficiency over time, cleaner indoor air and a reduced impact on the environment.
Appliances and lighting
Appliances with a Grade 1 Energy Efficiency label are the best way to curb energy consumption and save money. Energy-efficient fluorescent bulbs and dimmer switches for overhead lighting are more energy efficient and last longer, although they are more expensive. Replace old, inefficient hot water heaters with one central gas heater. Simon Damman, a contractor and director of OzWorks, said: 'The instantaneous ones only heat the water that is being used, unlike the big tanks that heat water all the time. Cost-wise, they are better than electric [water heaters].'
Indoor air quality
Proper home ventilation is essential for good health. Cooking fumes and gases from flooring, paint, cabinets and countertops all contribute to indoor air pollution.
Mr Harwood said a kitchen window was not enough. Installing a cooker hood with powerful extract ventilation was your best defence for clean indoor air. 'If you have an open kitchen it is a good idea to add an additional extract motor on the outside end of the extract duct,' he said. This would assist the cooker hood's motor and increase its pulling power.
Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are emitted by paints and wood preservatives, so choose low-VOC paints and low-VOC wood. This is important because exposure to VOC gas is associated with everything from eye, nose and throat irritation to cancer.
Countertops, cabinets, flooring
If you are renovating your kitchen, consider reusing existing materials. If you are buying new, choose materials that are made from recycled or renewable resources.
Unfortunately, this won't always be easy. Many speciality green products available overseas, such as innovative countertops made from recycled paper or hemp, are not widely available in Hong Kong. But, Mr Harwood said, it was not impossible to get them.'Everything is possible if you want to bring it in.'
If a limited budget and time do not allow for importing, the better options for natural countertops easily sourced in Hong Kong are glass, stone and tiles, including mosaics. Mosaics are the original eco-friendly tile, using broken chips from larger pieces of glass, stone or other material.
Ms Urmeneta preferred to use engineered stone, an aggregate of stone chips and dust bound by cement or resin. as a low-cost alternative to quarrying huge granite or marble slabs.
For cabinets Mr Harwood recommended medium-density fibreboard, made in a similar way by binding wood chips with resin. But choose boards that were made to European specifications and were low in formaldehyde, or the gases they emitted could be harmful to your health. Certain solid oaks grown commercially in Europe from sustainable sources are another option. The jury is still out on bamboo. Although it is a fast-growing plant with enviable properties for cabinets and flooring, the standards of harvesting and processing can vary.
Mr Damman suggested foregoing wood altogether, as it was not practical flooring for Hong Kong's climate. Stone tiles, concrete, and even seagrass or wool carpets would be more eco-friendly alternatives, depending on the company that manufactured them.
Jo Bryce, a programme director at Ark Eden, a Lantau Island-based environmental organisation, said: 'If you wouldn't eat it or put it on your skin, then don't use it in your house. Chemical cleaning agents pollute indoor air and our water supplies.'
She said bicarbonate of soda was a natural and inexpensive multipurpose alternative. 'It has scouring power and removes stains and odours.'
She said white vinegar (for windows), diluted essential oil of lavender (fabric softener), and diluted lemongrass and tea-tree oil (disinfectant) were other environmentally friendly alternatives.
The hidden cost of all eco-friendly products in Hong Kong is in the use of petroleum. Experts say that if it is imported, it will have a carbon footprint associated with its transport. This is the great irony of eco-friendly products such as low-phosphate detergents.
Sam Bevan, director of the British Council's Climate Cool project, said: 'I used to buy these more in Britain, but I must confess to not using them much over here, partly because of availability and cost, and also because I have concerns about the transport factor.'
The easiest start to a green kitchen is also its cornerstone - recycling, in any of its many guises from reusing aluminium foil to composting. 'This can significantly reduce the amount of waste you are sending to landfills,' Ms Bevan said.