How to achieve an eco-friendly kitchen

Whether you invest your life savings in a luxury one, or you do it on a shoestring, you can make sure your kitchen doesn't leave a giant-sized carbon footprint in its wake

By Abby Trow
Shaker kitchen, Mereway Kitchens Ltd

Kitchens can be tricky if you want to be super eco. Avoid MDF if you can - plywood is a better alternative for units. Choose low energy LED lighting, AAA+ rated appliances; for floors and counter tops get the most environmentally-friendly material you can afford. For the former, wood, cork, natural rubber or a poured bio floor are options; for the latter Resilica recycled glass worktops are beautiful and hardwearing, as is Eco by Cosentino, a solid surface made from recycled materials. Pictured above: Shaker style wood kitchen from Mereway Kitchens Ltd

Mercifully the days are over of us ripping out the existing kitchen regardless of its condition and dumping it in a skip the minute we move into a new house. In part that's because kitchens are expensive..and often very expensive..and partly because we're getting the message that if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

That said, kitchens don't last forever so do need replacing. And because it's a major purchase, we need to choose one that won't date quickly and will stand up to years of wear and tear. And while it's not the first question on everyone's lips, many of us want to know about a kitchen's eco credentials.

However, it's not always clear what constitutes an eco-friendly kitchen, especially if we want to go to a high street brand for a fairly speedy and easy service. 

Nicky Spear at Bristol-based Sustainable Kitchens says an eco-friendly kitchen probably isn't one that's made from MDF (medium density fibreboard), because the glues in most MDF make it non-recyclable. Her company uses only hardwoods such as PEFC-certified American white oak for cupboard carcasses, as well as doors. She says the company also tries to minimise landfill by removing clients' old kitchens so they can be re-housed via Freecycle. And when designing a new kitchen, it should made so it can be easily disassembled so component parts can be recycled. (Click here to see Sustainable Kitchens' environmental policy.)

A vibrant yellow range cooker gives this country kitchen a funky vibe...
Finnish brand Puuustelli Miinus has developed a highly eco friendly kitchen system
Kuche's Passivhaus Underhill kitchen had to meet strict eco criteria
Durat worktops contain 30 per cent post consumer recycled plastics
Consider flooring too when designing your kitchen...
Reclaimed timber was used in this kitchen by The Main Company

Spear says when it comes to worktops, kitchen companies have to go with their clients' choices. But if their advice is asked, Sustainable Kitchens recommends a sustainable material such as wood; or consider a recyclable/inert one such as glass or ceramic tiles. Not to mention Durat - see below.

Puustelli Miinus

This Finnish kitchen company - which is launching into the UK market - has sought to produce highly eco friendly kitchens: they're easy to take apart and reassemble in your new home should you move; they're made from waterproof, recyclable materials (a special biocomposite material), far less material goes into them than is the case with many kitchens; and they're designed to be healthy because they don't use materials that off-gas - so no MDF, melamine or high pressure laminate. 

Don't overlook reclaimed timber

Tom Hutchinson, kitchen designer at North Yorks-based The Main Company, says clients may not expressly ask for an eco-friendly kitchen, but many do say they want it all made from solid wood. 'They're clear that they don't want MDF, so we use a sustainable timber such as tulip wood for our frames and then a solid wood - mainly oak.' The company offers reclaimed timber as well and can incorporate salvaged pieces such as sinks into a kitchen - appropriate for a rustic/country style.

Passivhaus standards

Hertfordshire-based Kuche is well placed to offer advice, since it built the kitchen for the UK's first certified Passivhaus, Underhill in the Cotswolds. The house was designed by architect Seymour Smith and will be familiar to fans of Channel 4's Grand Designs Live, which featured this self-build project.

Paul Weber, Kuche's design director, says the company's experience of working on a Passivhaus project reinforced its commitment to designing kitchens for all of its clients that are as sustainable as possible.

He outlines the principles that underpinned Underhill and Kuche's subsequent projects: 

-All board material - such as MDF for cupboard carcasses - should be recyclable/ FSC-certified/ formaldhyde-free 
-All cabinets should be designed for easy dis-assembly and recycling
-All finishes to be natural (eg waxes) or low-VOC water-based lacquer/ powdercoating
-All worktops to be made from sustainable natural materials or made from material that is recyclable
-All appliances to have A+ energy rating
-All kitchens to incorporate areas for recycling/composting.
Weber says with the Underhill kitchen, 'the cabinets were designed for recycling and were made from FSC birch plywood with a wax finish, while doors we had made from FSC-certified MDF with a low-VOC soft touch lacquer finish. The 10m long worktop and the 3m long island unit surface are seamless and made from Durat.'
If you're not familiar with it, Durat is a Finnish solid surface material made from polyester and 30 per cent post-consumer recycled plastics. What customers like about it is not only that it contains waste plastics (collected in Sweden and Finland) and comes in fabulous colours, but that it is 100 per cent recyclable.
Painted kitchen from Woodstock.
If you have the space, ask for a designated recycling/compost section.
Maple kitchen by Woodstock Furniture. Kitchens start at around £30,000 inc VAT. www.woodstockfurnitu
Choose A+++ rated appliances such as fridges and ovens, and induction hobs
Kitchen made from American maple. Photo by Philip Koomen
This barn has been given a minimalist interior, with American white oak kitchen units.

Katerina Baranovskaja, of Durat's sales team, explains that the company has collection points for discarded Durat work surfaces, and it transports them to its manufacturing plants in Finland and China for re-grinding and putting into the production process. 

'I would add though, that we don't get much back.. in fact none from the UK that I know of and that's because the worksurfaces are so good that no one wants to throw them out!' 
In terms of pricing, Durat is comparable to other solid surface materials, at around £250 per metre that's 600mm deep.
Woodstock Furniture urges eco due diligence 
'The materials you choose are a key component in sustainable design, says Andrew Hall, MD and chief designer at Hampshire-based Woodstock Furniture. 'For example, American hardwoods, namely maple, cherry oak and walnut, are a good start. These  will minimize the impact on the environment throughout all the stages of the product life cycle, from extraction and processing through to use, reuse and final disposal.
'These woods are low-impact, renewable, energy efficient and readily recyclable and biodegradable. From a designer's perspective they're also high quality and durable, making them the perfect for luxury, bespoke kitchens.' 
Hall urges people to 'always ask your designer whether the timber they use is FSC-certified and check it has Chain of Custody certification - this is an audited system that tracks the tree from its source through any production procedures and ownership until it arrives at a supplier's yards as certified legal stock.'

And being huge fans of wood, Woodstock likes worktops and flooring make from wood too.

'Consider products sourced from renewable forests, or reclaimed wood, which has been re-finished,' says Hall. 'It can be a fantastic option for a more lived-in look. We like bamboo too. It's extremely durable so is great for flooring that looks elegant and is easy to maintain.'

Choose the most energy efficient appliances
As with Kuche, Woodstock chooses the most energy-efficient appliances, which means ones with ratings of A++ and A+++. And remember the most energy efficient hobs are induction hobs, prices for which are starting to come down.
In terms of lighting, Andrew Hall says 'kitchen designers always ensure natural light is maximized to its utmost potential, which can be enhanced further with roof lights in a kitchen extension, or bi-folding doors, all with low heat emission glass with solar shading. Task and mood lighting need strategic placement but low voltage LED systems ensure they're energy efficient.'
At the high street end of the kitchen market, Magnet has some very stylish kitchens. All of its boards are FSC-certified and products manufactured in the UK. 
But there's no need to go to a kitchen company if you know a good carpenter or joiner. Ask them to make a kitchen for you, and this can often be a much more cost-effective way of having a bespoke kitchen.
London contemporary interior designer Paul Warren asked his joiner to make him a kitchen for his London flat, which, unpainted (and without appliances), came in at under £5,000. 'I was very pleased. The units were made from plywood and I found a decorator to paint them in an eco-friendly paint. It's made to measure and I know exactly what's gone into the kitchen.'
Whichever way you go, though, the key words are PEFC/FSC-certified when it comes to wood or wood fibre boards, and recyclability when it comes to materials in general. That's in case the person who buys your house decides that they can't feel at home until they have a new kitchen. In which case, leave them clear directions to the municipal recycling centre.