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A Black Iron Haven

Green Iron: The Environmental Benefits of Cast Iron Cookware

Posted by Rick Mansfield

Around here, we often refer to our cookware of choice as “black iron.” But in many ways, cast iron is green if you think about it, too. No, I’m not referring to enameled cast iron such as the skillet pictured to the right (but it makes a great image for this post!). Rather, I’m referring ot the environmental benefits of cast iron.

Perhaps you’ve never thought about it. I mean, most folks who have been cast iron aficianados for a while are familiar with the other benefits. Of course there are healthy benefits to cast iron. Cooking in cast iron is a great way to introduce trace amounts of iron into one’s diet. Plus, there’s no flaking Teflon to worry about getting into one’s food. Then, on another front, there are economical benefits to cast iron because these pans--except for the enameled variety--cost MUCH less than other kinds of cookware.

Bur you may or may not have ever thought about the environmental benefits of cast iron. These benefits can be divided into at least three main areas: (1) Toxicity (or lack thereof), (2) production, and (3) longevity and recyclability.

First, as mentioned above in regard to health, cast iron cookware is a smart alternative to Teflon-coated aluminum pans. According to the Environmental Working Group website,

Statistics reported by the Cookware Manufacturers Association indicate that 90 percent of all the aluminum cookware sold in the United States in 2001 was coated with non-stick chemicals like Teflon (Cooks Illustrated, September 2002). Chemicals and tiny, toxic Teflon particles released from heated Teflon kill household pet birds. At least four of these chemicals never break down in the environment, and some are widely found in human blood.

This is obviously not a concern with cast iron cookware which builds its non-stick surface naturally through the carbonization process of heating oils and fats on the cooking surface. What about the cast iron that comes pre-seasoned--is that coating harmful? Not at all. Pre-seasoning is nothing more than vegetable oil (and it’s Kosher vegetable oil if you get a Lodge pan!) heated at high temperatures. Yes, it can flake off, but it won’t hurt human beings or animals and this vegetable oil coating is fully biodegradable.

Second, many cast iron foundries incorporate steps in the production of cast iron that greatly reduces waste and impact on the environment. My wife, Kathy, and I were able to tour the Lodge Manufacturing Plant in South Pittsburg, Tennessee, in April. We found that the production of the cast iron cookware Lodge produces was eco-frindly in all stages. The picture on the left shows the scrap iron used in the process before it has been melted to be poured in the sand casts. Part of the production of cast iron also involved pounding the pans with rocks to create a smoother surface on the molded cast iron. Lodge uses rocks taken directly from the Tennessee River bed for this process. Production of cast iron dates back to 600 AD in China, and even though the process is more mechanized today, it is still essentially the same process that has been around for over a millennia. Lodge also has a special page devoted to Eco-Responsibility, incorporating measures even down to the cardboard packaging they use.

Finally, cast iron pans can last for generations. Pictured on the right is my grandmother’s cast iron skillet. It is at least seventy years old, and it may very well be older. Now tell me--if you had one of the original Teflon pans from the 1940’s, would you dare eat from it? Are there any of those pans even still around? Well, my grandmother’s skillet is still in use and has a prominent and permanent place on my stovetop where it is used regularly in our cooking.

Since cast iron, if treated well, gets better with age, my grandmother’s skillet actually has a greater non-stick surface than the skillet I got brand new in the nineties. Certainly, the cast iron in the pan itself can be recycled, but the best way to recycle a pan is to pass it on down to a family member. I fully intend that my grandmother’s pan will outlast me, and I’ll be able to pass it down to my children or grandchildren.

Consider this as well: because cast iron is a lifetime investment (and a low-cost one at that!), you won’t have to completely replace your pans every decade or so as some people have to do with cookware made of other materials.

So, if you’ve been sitting on the fence in regard to whether or not you should make the jump to cast iron, now you have even more reasons to do so. And if you already use cast iron, you can feel good about the fact that cast iron is a smart, economical purchase, is healthy for you and your family, and is friendly to the environment as well. That cannot be said of any other kind of cookware.

Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments below, or you can contact Rick directly at