How Can I Renovate My Kitchen Sustainably?
Fitting a new kitchen? Read expert tips on how to choose all the elements wisely and keep your old units out of landfill
As part of our comprehensive Sustainable Renovation Planning guide, three experts give their overview of the issues and tips on working around them.
Professional advice from: Rob Cole of Sheffield Sustainable Kitchens; Looeeze Grossman of The Used Kitchen Company; Richard Andrews of Richard John Andrews
Starting your renovation? Read How to Renovate Sustainably
Rob Cole outlines what he believes to be the three main sustainability issues when renovating a kitchen (though they also apply to most projects). “Longevity is the key,” he says. “Also transportation, and the materials used.
“When I started the business in 2008, the attitude was to rip stuff out, whether it was any good or not, and replace it with something new that wasn’t necessarily long-lasting quality,” he says. “To me, that was so wasteful and unnecessary – we don’t have unlimited resources.”
Looeeze Grossman, whose company sells ex-display and pre-owned kitchens, agrees. “Homeowners should not view a kitchen they have grown tired of as one that has no value,” she says. “What’s no longer needed by one person or family may be a perfect buy for another.
“Thousands of kitchens are sent to landfill each year during home renovations,” she says. “The average kitchen produces up to two tonnes of waste. You can quickly see how important it is to recycle them, particularly as there are EU targets for 65% of municipal waste, by weight, to be recycled by 2035, and to have no more than 10% of waste in landfill.”
“Spend a bit more, so as to buy something that’s really good quality that will last – say 30 years rather than five,” Rob says. “Make sure it’s really well designed down to the last detail and that it functions beautifully. If it’s a pleasure to work in, it’s less likely to be ripped out.”
It’s also important to research your materials. “Know where they’re coming from, how they’re made and what’s in them,” he says.
Rob shares some general pointers for choosing materials:
- Source materials as locally as possible. “We use timber whenever we can from within a 30-mile radius and from trees that were already coming down,” he says.
- Know your wood. “You can generally trust European FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) and UK-grown timber, but when it’s from Africa or Asia, traceability becomes much harder,” he says.
- Keep any chemicals used to a minimum.
- Choose doors that can be painted so that, rather than being tempted to get new units 10 years down the line because you’re bored with them, you can simply repaint them.
- Choose recyclable materials.
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“Rather than concrete, which has a really high carbon footprint, we would suggest recycled glass worktops,” Rob says. These are made from at least 90% glass that would otherwise go to landfill that’s been crushed and set into resin. “Recycled glass is really beautiful and can look quite like concrete. In addition, it isn’t porous, so it won’t stain,” he says.
Other worktop materials Rob’s happy to use include recycled paper (pictured), formed from layers of paper impregnated with resin, and Durat, a recycled plastic product from Finland that uses 30% to 50% post-manufacturing waste.
“We also use a huge amount of reclaimed timber, meaning you can have iroko or teak from Africa or Asia with no guilt,” he says. The company often sources this in the form of ex-school science lab worktops. It’s also currently making use of oak from Belgian railway carriages. “We made some beautiful worktops for a client out of this,” he says, “and it has a story.”
Be aware that granite can have ethical implications depending on where it’s been mined, and dubious sustainability credentials if it’s clocked up thousands of miles in transportation, so check its provenance.
“There are various interesting products,” Rob says. “We like recycled rubber, but the one we use the most is Marmoleum lino, which is made from linseed oil and putty and is a completely natural material.”
Sustainably sourced or recycled wood, popular in the form of parquet, is another option. Do bear in mind, though, that recycled parquet requires expertise and a lot of time to fit and finish, so you’ll need to allocate sufficient budget for this.
Architect Richard Andrews used a number of sustainable materials for his own kitchen, pictured here, with a particular focus on the recycled and reclaimed.
He built his own units using plywood, which he stained using Indian ink. Plywood, chosen well, can be a great sustainable material, though do source FSC-certified plywood and research the chemicals used in production.
The cupboard handles are made from recycled plastic; the dining chairs and stools were bought second-hand on eBay.
More: Kitchen Tour: Clever Design Kept a Stylish Extension on Budget
Another approach to getting a beautiful kitchen sustainably is to buy the entire thing second-hand. Sites such as eBay, Gumtree, Freecycle and Facebook Marketplace can be good sources of complete kitchens, as well as components such as worktops, islands and appliances.
The Used Kitchen Company specialises in second-hand kitchen sales, from high end to high street. “It’s unbelievable some of the kitchens people want to get rid of,” Looeeze says.
The company sources ex display models (such as the one pictured here), as well as good-quality kitchens from homeowners who are replacing them, at up to 70% of the original cost; prices range from around £1,750 to £50,000 plus.
Think that seems like hard work in terms of finding the perfect fit and configuration for your space? “All kitchens break down into individual units,” Looeeze says, “and once you remove the worktops, units can be rejigged to a certain extent to fit your space.
“We always recommend buying a kitchen larger than you need, which will leave you with extra units to use for fillers and panels if needed,” she says. “Bear in mind that most ex-display kitchens are current, so additional [new] units can still be bought.”
One idea is to sell it. Looeeze highlights the UK Government’s Clean Growth Strategy, published in October 2017 and updated in 2018, which seeks to eliminate all ‘avoidable’ waste by 2050. “And kitchen waste is very often avoidable waste, as buyers do exist,” Looeeze says.
“The average kitchen we sell is less than 10 years old and in good condition,” she continues, “but we’ll often have a look at older kitchens and either give them a try or help people to list them on Gumtree.”
Rob says he also supplies a lot of clients with new components for existing kitchens – sometimes, simply replacing a worktop and having the doors professionally spray-painted could swerve the need for new units entirely.
And if your kitchen isn’t in a saleable condition? “When waste is unavoidable, ensure a responsible disposal company is used,” Rob says. “We work with a decent waste contractor, who will separate things out and recycle what can be recycled.”
You may also be able sell on parts of the kitchen that are still in good condition, or have a go with Freecycle.
“These are tricky, to a degree,” Rob says. “Again, longevity comes into play. Look at appliances designed to last at least 20 years – guarantees of two or five years are good and some brands even do 10 years, especially on washing machines.
“Look carefully at integrated appliances that come with the kitchen,” he continues. “These are often very cheap, so ask about what you’re getting. If you haven’t heard of the brand, then I wouldn’t put it in; even if you have, look into the company’s sustainability policies.”
“Plumbing is another tricky one. We’ve not yet managed to discover whether copper or plastic pipes are better,” Rob says. “You could pay a sustainability consultant thousands and still not get a conclusive answer.
“For welding,” he says, “we always use a solvent weld rather than pushing joints together with a rubber seal – the latter are more prone to leaks and typically not as long-lasting.”
On the topic of leaks, a recent mishap in a newly installed kitchen has caused Rob to rethink how they install sink units. “Just weeks after putting in a kitchen,” he recalls, “the client knocked over a washing detergent container. The cabinet was permanently damaged before it was even a month old. It’s really common to open the sink cabinet and see damage of this sort, or from leaks. This prompted us to think: what can we do to protect and avoid these sorts of things and help longevity?”
The upshot is that Rob’s team now install a liner tray into every sink cabinet. “If there’s a leak, you see it before the damage happens,” he says. This ensures the unit remains recyclable or resellable in the future.
Another idea comes from Richard Andrews, who reduced the amount of items he needed to buy for his own kitchen by building his own taps from plumbing materials (see picture four). It’s also a job a good plumber would be able to do relatively easily.
“Clients should be asking their designers and architects about the choices available,” Richard says. “For example, if they like the look of concrete, then ask what might be a more sustainable alternative. Or, if you as the client have found a sustainable material or idea, then show it and ask if it’s viable for the project.
“We’re learning all the time,” he says, “and we should be empowering our clients to feel confident and comfortable having those conversations with professionals.”
What would you do to make your kitchen design more sustainable? Share your thoughts in the Comments.