Advice from professionals on incorporating eco friendly technologies into your builds and ideas into your life, as well as exclusive eco industry news from New Zealand and around the world.

Keyword Search
Home > Info > At home / living > Sustainable Kitchen Ideas

Sustainable Kitchen Ideas

Written By Rhys Taylor

One of the most frequently used spaces in the home, the kitchen, can have a considerably negative impact on the planet. We believe that it’s worth considering sustainability in both its design, and use.

For starters, consider the kitchens potential use for food preparing, and as an occasional entertaining space. Will it be used simultaneously by one or two home chefs?  Size and layout should reflect this, as to avoid making the ‘footprint’ too large. You could consider being part of the global trend towards smaller and more efficient houses.

Important eco kitchen features to include:

  • Fan ventilation close to where steam (and fumes, if gas-burning) will be produced, above the stove-top
  • Accessible short-term storage for food scraps; these can go out into garden compost, worm farm or bokashi buckets and not into landfill
  • Similar storage for rinsed recyclable packaging
  • Either a water-efficient, Energy Star-rated  dishwasher or a larger sized stainless steel drainer on which racks will air-dry hand washed crockery, preferably with good ventilation close by.


Many city home kitchens have too little storage space for food, because it is assumed that shops will hold food stock. If your home is not within walking distance of a grocery store, include space for extra storage, particularly in a cooler part of the house.  Save time and fuel each week by keeping a list, and shop less often.

My (the authors) Canterbury home was built with a walk-in pantry on the south side, separated from the kitchen by an insulated wall, so that its air temperature is at least six degrees lower than the rest of the house. This shelf-filled space, which is also ventilated from the outside (using a fly screen on the ventilation pipe), allows us to store fruit, vegetables and groceries for longer periods than what could be achieved in a warm kitchen. Buying organic groceries once a month in bulk allows for discounts, and leaves enough shelf space to store home-bottled preserves, and dried fruits, for up to one year.

Kitchen cabinetry offers another choice area at design stage. Because we wished to avoid the formaldehyde and other toxic gases given off by composite wood products such as MDF, we specified real timber doors and frames plus plywood shelves, for our cabinets.  We found that attractive Macrocarpa timber was available and its surface is sealed with several coats of oil instead of polyurethane.  Few companies build kitchens in this way, so it can be difficult to avoid MDF and plastic kit-set kitchens if you're in a hurry to build or to replace existing cupboards – we found it worth the wait, but then we don’t like fast food either!


The bench/work-surface needs to be strong, hygienic and water resistant for easy cleaning. It also pays not to rely on the use of toxic bleaches or bacteria-killers. Stainless steel sheet and plastic laminates mounted on ply are probably your best options, although some prefer polished natural stone which can be more expensive. Among the laminate providers, a few are now thinking about sustainability and have Environmental Choice accreditation (such as Laminex and Formica)

Kitchen wall surfaces close to bench tops can also be tiled to assist hygiene, or otherwise sealed with a water-based paint which dries to a washable semi-gloss.  Several paint makers offer ranges which involve no volatile solvents, for better indoor air quality, which have Environmental Choice accreditation.

Soft, absorbent floor surfaces are not very practical in kitchens as they stain and accumulate food scraps, bacteria and dust. Waterproof, easily swept surfaces are preferable, such as sealed wood or bamboo, concrete or tiles. We laid tiles on our kitchen’s concrete floor, as part of a high thermal mass house design and have found they proved easy to clean and robust. The negatives of tiled or other hard floor surfaces are increased noise reflection, a less comfortable surface to stand on for long periods of time, and breakage of dropped items!

Everyday actions

Once in use, your kitchen can be made more environment-friendly by how you source and manage your food stock. Large amounts of perishable food are wasted in New Zealand because people often buy more than they need, and throw it out of the fridge because of expiration. Waste Management Institute NZ estimate food waste in New Zealand at $563 per family or $872 million a year (122,547 tonnes would be enough to feed double Dunedin’s population). Apart from the cost, the packaged food sent to landfills will decay into methane gas, ultimately warming the climate. Checking what you already have in stock, eating food in date order and using a shopping list reduces wasteful over-purchasing. An audit of your fridge contents may challenge you to find creative recipes – we recommend a Google recipe search based on ingredients, cook what's in storage!

Another great way to reduce waste is to grow fruit, vegetables and herbs at home, or take part in a community garden, so that the garden provides your fresh larder from which you pick as required.

Sustainable Kitchen - Freeze Food

Energy savers

If you are keen to reduce a blow-out electric bill, here are some tips:

  • Keep lids on pans and turn down the heat as they reach the boil, for less steam.
  • Cook double portions or two dishes at once when you decide to turn on the oven.
  • Thaw frozen foods on a plate in the fridge over-night, rather than using a microwave for defrost. This technique helps to keep your fridge cool more cheaply, too.
  • If the fridge is more than 15 years old, give serious thought to replacing it with a modern one as the running cost per year should be much lower. Modern freezers are also more efficient and better insulated than their predecessors, especially the chest type.
  • Do not then re-use that old fridge in your hot, un-insulated garage to keep beer or wine cool in summer! Get it de-gassed and recycled.

What we eat

Your choice of foods has a significant environmental impact beyond the kitchen. Meat production requires more land area than vegetable production per meal provided, especially if animals are fed supplements to grass. Enjoying some meat-less days each week encourages you to explore the amazing variety of vegetarian food recipes and may help to reduce the size of the shopping bill. Heart specialists beleive we will be healthier on reduced meat too. Grains, pulses and nuts also store longer than meats and fish, so these are useful foods to hold for unexpected guests and emergencies. 

Rhys in the Sustainable Kitchen

Rhys Taylor is the national coordinator of the local government-led Sustainable Living Education Trust. Waste minimisation, Food and eco-design of buildings feature in the trust's Future Living Skills programme. Information: Free if your council is subscribing, or $39 for individual subscription in 2016.

Showing 2 Comments

Posted by Ecobob on 03/05/2016 11:59 AM

Hi Roland. Thank you so much for your insights! Plywood is pretty trendy right now, but your right it's not as sustainable as solid wood. It's really good that you are thinking in terms of the entire lifecycle of the kitchen joinery.

Posted by Roland Zender on 03/05/2016 11:03 AM

In terms of materials for cabinetry and benches we suggest to stay away from plywood as much as possible as the glues used there are not that great and at the end of the kitchens life it will still have to go to landfill (already in the manufacturing process you get a lot of unusable waste), whereas a solid timber, oiled cabinet will not create more rubbish and will last longer (the top-layer of plywood is only about 1 mm thick and therefore gets damaged easily). Also Formica tops using MDF inside have the same waste-issue (and being 'Formaldehyde'-free does not mean they are glue-free). For the tops I find a combination of timber and stainless/ stone-tops still the most sustainable and beautiful combination. All the Best, Roland from Natural Kitchens in Auckland

You need to be signed in to post a comment.

If you have an account you can login here, if you haven't registered yet you can register here.