Most cookware is made from non-renewable resources — metals mined from the earth in excavation and milling procedures that are detrimental to the environment. Many pots and pans are also manufactured with health-harming Teflon. Whipping up dinner in something more eco-friendly can take many forms — everything from buying cookware constructed with metals that conduct heat more efficiently to choosing non-stick cookware made with greener alternatives to buying secondhand pans.
What to look for in eco-friendly cookware
Your best bet is to choose long-lasting cookware based on the type of cooking you do the most, which means you may end up with a mix of pieces in your kitchen: cast iron for long slow cooking, copper for delicate sauces, and maybe a non-stick aluminum pan for low-fat cooking. Having the right pan for the job means you'll not only get a perfectly cooked meal, but you'll also use fewer resources and less energy to get the job done. Here are some money- and energy-saving tips to keep in mind while you shop:
- Look for cookware made of aluminum, cast iron, or copper. These metals have the highest heat conductivity and will use your stove's heat more efficiently.
- Shop for cookware made with recycled materials. Most metals are recyclable, and some manufacturers seek out these materials and say so on their packaging.
- Choose pieces that are "oven-safe". These pots can do double-duty and be used in the oven as well as on the stove. Some cookware may even do triple-duty: stove, oven, and microwave.
- Buy used cookware. Once you know what you want, visit thrift stores to find items that are still in good condition.
- Buy pieces that come with a lid. Cooking your meals with the lid on allows you to turn down the heat and reduce energy use.
- Buy pots and pans with flat bottoms. This is particularly important if you have flat-surface burners on your electric stove. The bottom of the pan needs to make solid contact with these heating elements or the pan will not conduct heat to the food efficiently. For example, boiling water uses 50 percent more energy in a well-used pan with a warped bottom compared to a pan with a flat bottom.
Find it! Eco-friendly cookware
Before you buy
With so many products on the market you might feel overwhelmed by the marketing terminology. (What is "clad" anyway?) To help you navigate, the Cookware Manufacturers Association (CMA) offers a glossary of terms and a Guide to Cookware and Bakeware (for purchase). You can also take a look at Cookware reviews to help you determine what type of cookware is best for the type of cooking you do.
Buying eco-friendly cookware helps you go green because…
- It's made from materials with high heat conductivity so you can cook on a lower heat setting and use less energy.
All the common metals used to manufacture pots and pans are mined from the earth and are nonrenewable resources. Metal cookware is by no means the biggest culprit when it comes to mine-waste problems. However, taken together, the extraction and processing of all metals creates between 1 and 2 billion tons of mine waste annually, and has polluted more than 3,400 miles of streams and more than 440,000 acres of land. In 2004, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ranked the metal mining industry as the nation's worst toxic polluter.
Cookware metals have different rates of heat conductivity, which refers to how fast heat is transferred from the pot to the food. A pot with a higher heat transfer will use less energy (whether gas or electric stove) to cook food. Copper has the fastest heat transfer, followed by aluminum, cast iron, stainless steel, ceramic, and glass.
On the plus side, copper heats and cools quickly. It also has a high recycling rate in the US. In fact, more than 75 percent of copper used to make new goods (excluding wire) comes from recycled scrap. However, the mining of copper ore presents a few eco-problems. Because copper mining is a multi-step process that requires several hundred metric tons of ore to produce each metric ton of copper metal, it creates large quantities of waste.
This lightweight metal also heats quickly and is 100 percent recyclable. In the US, around 35 percent of aluminum products contain recycled aluminum. On the downside, though, salty or acidic foods may cause aluminum to corrode. Therefore, most aluminum cookware is coated with nonstick finishes or treated using a process — anodization — that alters and hardens the metal. Also problematic is the energy-intensive process of converting bauxite (the source of aluminum that makes up 8 percent of the earth's crust) into aluminum. In addition, open-cast mining of bauxite leads to deforestation and destruction of ecosystems.
Though it heats more slowly than the previous two metals, cast iron holds heat longer so you can turn off the burner earlier. In addition, cast iron is long-lasting, plus a well-seasoned cast-iron pan makes a suitable nonstick alternative. Cooking with cast iron leaches some of the iron into food, but since iron is an important dietary nutrient, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) considers this a plus. On the con side, the iron industry is energy intensive, consuming close to 1.5 quads/year. (A quad is a unit of energy equal to 1015 Btu.)
A slow heat-conductor on its own, stainless steel is often used in combination with aluminum or copper. Stainless steel does not occur in nature and is made from iron, nickel, chromium, and molybdenum. The upside is that steel can be recycled repeatedly. In fact, essentially all steel products produced today contain some percentage of recycled steel. Every year, the steel recycling industry saves enough energy to power 18 million homes, and new natural resources are conserved, including 2,500 pounds of iron ore, 1,400 pounds of coal, and 120 pounds of limestone for every one ton of steel.
Teflon is the registered trade name for polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), a class of plastics known as fluoropolymers, and most nonstick cookware is made with this chemical. Fluoropolymers are created using perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), which the EPA discovered is persistent in the environment and in the blood of the general US population. However, it's important to note that nonstick pans do not actually contain PFOA.
So how did PFOA get in the environment and in the blood of the US population? The culprit appears to be manufacturing plants that produce PFOA. In 1999, DuPont's facilities around the world emitted 142,600 pounds of PFOA into the air and water. In 2005, the EPA determined that PFOA is a "likely carcinogen." Yet, because PFOA is not present in the finished cookware product beyond trace amounts, the EPA does not currently recommend that consumers stop using products containing it. Instead it has called on companies to reduce facility emissions and product content of PFOA and related chemicals by 95 percent by 2010, and to work toward eliminating emissions and product content by 2015.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) recommends that consumers replace their PFOA nonstick cookware with safer alternatives. If you're not sure if your nonstick brand is made with PFOA, you can review EWG's 2003 sampling of 208 cookware products that contained perfluorochemicals (PFC).
New nonstick cookware
Several cookware manufacturers have come up with nonstick options that don't use PTFE or PFOA. These include anodized aluminum, well-seasoned cast iron, and pans with an enamel coating.
- MadeHow.com - Aluminum
- MadeHow.com - Stainless Steel
- eHow - How to Buy Used Cookware
- eHow - How to Know Cookware Heat Conductivity
- ConsumerReports.org - Buying Advice, Pots and Pans
- Eartheasy - Healthy Cookware: How to lessen potential risks
- US Environmental Protection Agency - Basic Information on PFOA
- Fine Cooking - Choosing Pots and Pans to Improve Your Cooking
- US Food and Drug Administration - Is Newfangled Cookware Safe?
- Associated Content - How to Recycle an Old Saucepan with Creative Reuse
- The New York Times - In Search of a Pan That Lets Cooks Forget About Teflon
- Environmental Working Group - How Green is DuPont's Replacement for Teflon Chemical?
- Environmental Health Perspectives - Genomic Profiling Reveals an Alternate Mechanism for Hepatic Tumor Promotion by Perfluorooctanoic Acid in Rainbow Trout: A study by researchers at Oregon State University found that PFOA caused increased estrogen levels and liver cancer in trout.
- American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy - Consumer Guide to Home Energy Savings: Cooking
- US Environmental Protection Agency - Mine Waste Technology: Progress & Goals
- Mother Jones - How Mining Companies Make a Mess
- Copper.org - Environmental Facts
- Grist - Ask Umbra: Brew Ado
- Energy Solutions Center - Iron and Steel Overview: Energy Consumption
- Steel Recycling Institute - Buy Recycled with Recyclable Steel
- WashingtonPost.com - Keep Your Cool When Using Teflon
- Friends of the Earth - Nanotechnology in Food & Agriculture Page 2