How to choose eco-friendly pots and pans.

How to choose eco-friendly pots and pans.

How to choose eco-friendly pots and pans.

Illuminating answers to environmental questions.
June 9 2009 10:26 AM

Something Old, Something New, Something Green To Cook In, Too

Registering for eco-friendly pots and pans.

Wedding gifts. Click image to expand.
Wedding gifts

I'm getting married next year, and my fiancee and I are having a grand-old time putting together our registry. The only problem is, we're trying to be as environmentally conscious as possible, and we don't know how to compare all the cookware options. What kinds of pots and pans are kindest to the planet?

Before you crack that Williams-Sonoma catalog, the Lantern has one request: Think carefully about you and your beloved's cooking habits. Will marriage suddenly turn you into a pair of braising, sautéing fiends? If not, maybe you don't need a brand-new suite of pots and pans. The Lantern isn't opposed to the occasional upgrade (she's been lusting after a Le Creuset for years herself), but the best way to green up your registry is to ask for durable, well-made items you'll really use—not just fancy items that seem like they belong in a "grown-up kitchen."

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That said, there are some environmental factors you might want to consider—like fuel efficiency. The first thing to look for is a material with high thermal conductivity. These metals not only heat up faster—thereby requiring less gas or electricity—but they also distribute heat more quickly. Copper is king here: It has nearly twice the thermal conductivity of aluminum (the most commonly used metal in cookware) and is five times more conductive than cast iron and 25 times more than stainless steel. Serious cooks love copper for this quality, and because copper cookware is so expensive—a good skillet might run you hundreds of dollars—they make great registry options for any rich, doting relatives on your guest list.

If you make a lot of slow-cooked meals, you may also want to consider adding some kitchenware with a high heat capacity. These pots and pans will take longer to reach the desired temperature, but they'll also take longer to cool down, so you can save fuel by turning your burners down and letting residual heat handle some of the cooking. Per unit of volume, steel, cast iron, and copper all have roughly the same heat capacity—which is about one and a half times as high as aluminum. * Heavier pots contain more metal and thus hold more heat—that's why thick, cast-iron cookware is often singled out in this category. Cast iron also gets eco-points for being extremely durable—with proper care, it can last generations—and, when seasoned properly, it becomes increasingly stick-resistant over time, which means less soap and water for cleaning.

Whichever materials you choose, you want to look for sturdy, flat-bottomed pots and pans: Good, even contact with the heat source means less wasted energy.

Also spare a thought for how the raw materials in your pots and pans were sourced. For example, it takes a lot of energy to refine aluminum—which accounts for the vast majority of top-of-the-range cookware sold in the United States. Mining and processing bauxite ore into a ton of aluminum takes about 91 gigajoules of energy. Compare that with 72 gigajoules for a ton of stainless steel from virgin sources and 32 gigajoules for a tonof copper.

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Whenever possible, look for cookware made from post-consumer recycled material—recycled aluminum requires about 95 percent less energy to process than the virgin stuff, and stainless steel about 70 percent less.

Finally, no discussion of eco-friendly cookware would be complete without a mention of nonstick coating, a major boogeyman for green chefs in recent years. Most nonstick cookware is lined with polytetrafluoroethylene—one of a class of slippery substances, known as fluoropolymers, used to make products waterproof, grease-proof, and stain-resistant. (DuPont's Teflon is the most famous brand.)

Fluoropolymer manufacturing has traditionally required the use of perfluorooctanoic acid, a chemical known to linger in the environment and to be toxic to animals. (It's also been found, in low levels, in the blood of more than 98 percent of the American population of humans.) How the acid, known as PFOA, actually gets into our blood and to what extent it affects our health aren't fully understood, but in 2005 the EPA's independent Science Advisory Board recommended that it be labeled a likely human carcinogen. The EPA is continuing to research the issue, however, and hasn't reached any definitive conclusions. (Some people avoid nonstick-coated pans for fear of harmful gases that could be released at high temperatures. However, the scientific consensus is that they're safe when used carefully—i.e., when the burner heat is kept relatively low and pans are never heated while empty.)

According to a 2006 paper in Environmental Science & Technology, the vast majority of PFOA in the environment is likely to come directly from manufacturing emissions. However, those amounts are decreasing—from hundreds of tons in 1999 to less than 62 tons in 2006. Under a voluntary government program, the eight major companies that work with PFOAhave agreed to make a 95 percent reduction in emissions by next year and to work toward eliminating all PFOA use by 2015.

So if you must have a nonstick skillet in your nuptial kitchen, you can at least take heart in the fact that one bought today will have less of an environmental impact than one bought 10 years ago. As the Lantern sees it, though, the real knock against traditional nonstick pans is that they have such a short shelf life—the coating usually begins to flake after three to five years of normal use. So consider longer-lasting enamel-coated skillets or ones with an interior of anodized aluminum. (Both work pretty well.) In the last year or two, a handful of pots and pans have been marketed as "greener" nonstick options—usually featuring fluoropolymer-free ceramic coatings—but they're so new that there isn't a ton of reliable consumer data on how well they perform or how long they'll last.

Whatever you decide, it's worth taking a few minutes to think about the fate of your old pots and pans once the wedding-gift glut is upon you. Try searching Earth911.com for metal recyclers in your area. Otherwise, donate your old cookware to a local shelter or soup kitchen and hope the good karma you accrue helps ward off embarrassing best-man speeches on the big night.

Is there an environmental quandary that's been keeping you up at night? Send it to ask.the.lantern@gmail.com, and check this space every Tuesday.

Correction, July 1, 2009: The original version of this article incorrectly stated that steel, cast iron, and copper have roughly the same heat capacity "pound for pound." (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Nina Shen Rastogi is a writer and editor, and is also the vice president for content at Figment.