For decades, Americans have punted on the climate. But in 2020, as the pandemic trapped folks inside, the weather raged outdoors: fires in California, snow in Texas, hurricanes in the Gulf, the hottest year on record. Now, as many cities excitedly burst out of COVID restrictions, the weather forecast for 2021 may put a damper on that jubilation.
“There is an ongoing conflict between the level of commitment you have to make and the convenience-sacrifice for environmental action that feels pretty real,” says Sarah Rich, a freelance editorial director who has written extensively at the intersection of food, design, and sustainability. “If you have to spend more money on something, or if it takes too long, or if it’s difficult to figure out, or requires a huge change in habits, then those are all barriers to adoption.”
COVID took care of some of those barriers, forcing many of us to adopt new habits. We had to do meal prep to save time, but we accidentally increased our energy efficiency too, by adding more food to each pot and more pans to the hot oven. We bought ingredients in bulk to avoid trips to the grocery store, but also reduced packaging waste and saved gas on car trips. We redesigned our kitchens to make them more liveable, but also upgraded to energy-efficient appliances. We picked up cast-iron cookware to improve our cooking game, but also invested in items that will last for generations.
As people reemerge into the outside world, there’s no reason to leave behind these lessons of indoor life, and this transitional period is an excellent time for any stragglers to adopt new sustainable practices. “Once you have to make an adaptation to your habits you might discover something in there you want to sustain,” Rich says. “There are certain things people had to do, and then if you do it long enough it becomes part of your routine.”
The next normal, whatever it is, will take place on this same Earth, in our same kitchens. Now is the time to examine the practices and tools that can help us make the best of it.
Invest in energy-efficient big appliances
Like an electric vehicle, the greenest kitchen is only as climate-friendly as its power, so sourcing green energy should be your first step. “Buying clean energy from your utility company is a very important step that most people can take,” says Edward Maibach, director of the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication. Green energy from solar panels (which come with tax credits in some states) or programs like Clean Choice Energy in the Northeast may be cheaper than fossil fuels.
Even if you draw your power from a clean source, it’s still a good idea to reduce your overall consumption by investing in energy-efficient devices, especially with your largest appliances like refrigerators and ovens. “Energy Star deserves a shoutout,” says Sandra Goldmark, director of campus sustainability and climate action at Barnard College, referring to the Environmental Protection Agency and Energy Department program that identifies energy-efficient devices.
However, sometimes the greenest thing to do is to stick with what you’ve got. “It’s like a car: If you’re driving a crazy clunker gas guzzler, go ahead and change that out for an electric car now,” Goldmark says. “If you just bought a moderately energy-efficient car, wait for new technology.” She explains that even energy-efficient appliances come with embodied carbon: the resources, materials, and human labor required to construct them. While very old appliances are relatively inefficient, in many areas you can find lightly used (and cheaper) items for sale that are only a year or two old.
Stop using (so much) gas to cook
With increasing evidence that gas stoves are bad for us and bad for the environment, we’ll all need to upgrade to electric or induction models eventually (or more immediately if you live in California). For anyone — especially renters, who can’t alter a gas line or replace a stove — Dawn Danby, cofounder and principle of environmentally minded design studio Spherical, suggests popping the grate off one of your gas burners and putting a one-burner induction stove in its place, allowing you to dip your toes into electric cooking.
If even that is too ambitious, Danby adds, “Pressure cookers are incredibly efficient, far more so than a lot of other ways of cooking. There’s a reason there’s a cult of the Instant Pot.”
Consider your ingredients
Sustainable food systems are a much larger conversation that has been addressed in more depth elsewhere, but Maibach puts it succinctly: “Eating a diet rich in grains, fruits, and vegetables, and cutting back on meat and dairy, is good for our health and good for our climate.”
Buy fewer tools and appliances, and plan on repairing what you have
For smaller appliances, Goldmark suggests legacy brands like Cuisinart, which sell replacement parts so you don’t have to buy a whole new machine when something breaks. Elsewhere, try to invest in quality and take care of your things. That means oiling your cutting board so it doesn’t splinter and seasoning your cast iron so it lasts longer.
As for all the other tools and objects in your kitchen, don’t go out and replace everything with a laundry list of sustainable alternatives. “We are living in a context where systems change is being positioned as affected through consumer choice, which is a completely false construct,” Danby says. “Cloth bags for your broccoli, little scrubbers made out of bamboo and horse hair, these are lovely things to have in the world,” she explains. “They can also be a distraction. They are symbolic of change. Meanwhile, you bought oat milk in a giant plastic container once a week and you’ve already bought far more plastic than you avoided with your little scrubber.”
Overall, just buy less. Goldmark points out that in 2020, for the first time in human history, all human-made stuff on Earth outweighed all organic matter. Beyond the embodied carbon of those extra spoons and mugs and kitchen gadgets, Goldmark argues excess stuff begets more waste. An overpacked kitchen drawer can make someone buy a new garlic press to replace the one they thought they lost, the same way an overfilled fridge makes someone neglect produce and dairy in the back until it’s rotten or expired. Channel your inner Marie Kondo, audit your kitchen, donate everything you don’t need, and try not to immediately refill your space with junk.
Do what you can keep doing
Since the pandemic began, many of us have adopted efficient shopping and cooking practices out of necessity, but maintaining those habits post-pandemic could help make our lifestyles greener (and easier) in the long run. Look for stores reintroducing self-serve bulk sections and invest in quality food containers to continue saving money on ingredients in bulk, cut down on packaging, and reduce the number of trips to the store. Even if you return to the office, continue prepping meals on weekends and remain flexible with how you use ingredients to ensure you always have a decent meal after work. Clean the kitchen faster by integrating composting into your cooking routine, and reorganize your fridge to keep perishable ingredients visible to avoid food waste in the back. And pass down all these good habits to your kids, along with family recipes, to make them great helpers in the future.
Overall, look for ways to make these new behaviors easy and fun. Climate action doesn’t have to — and in fact shouldn’t — feel like a chore. “Nobody does anything because of guilt. They do for a minute, but it gets old,” Danby admits. She suggests looking for ways you can create environmental habits that also bring you joy. “I prefer using the induction range. I prefer using the cast iron. I prefer cooking in bulk because then I don’t have to cook as much. I prefer not having as much particulate matter in my kitchen,” she says, referring to recent research on the dangers of gas stoves to indoor air quality. “Those are all intrinsic motivators that aren’t tied to my having a dashboard on the wall telling me what my carbon footprint is. Those have more sustained effects.”
While individuals replacing old refrigerators and cooking in bulk may help to a certain point, Maibach emphasizes, “The most important action we can take, however, is to tell our elected officials that we need them to implement climate-smart policies, including and especially policies that will give us 100 percent clean, renewable energy as soon as possible.”
The climate change conversation has shifted from convincing people that climate change is real to convincing them it is immediate and personal. “Most Americans accept that climate change is a problem,” Maibach says, “but they see it as a distant problem — in time (not yet), space (not here), and species (not us).” While COVID has helped some people connect the dots in their own lives, large systems change likely can’t be accomplished by individual consumers.
But it’s important to recognize that the pandemic has also shown how individual action can turn into communal action. The two are not mutually exclusive. Goldmark rejects the argument that individual actions don’t matter in the global fight against climate change. That thinking is damaging, absolving people of responsibility and negating their power.
“If fixing your toaster means you’re not going to fight for the right policies and you’re not going to vote and you’re not going to march, then fine, don’t fix your toaster,” she says. “But I think for most people, taking those individual actions galvanizes them. It’s a way to educate each other, to socialize these important behaviors, and to talk about it at the level where cultural change actually happens, which is in the community, in the schools, in the home.”