This week we’re looking at the use of enamel. Enamel is still very much in use today, and in this more eco-friendly society we’re trying to build …we wanted to discuss the subject of – is enamel eco-friendly?
Is enamel Eco-Friendly? Enamel is more Eco-friendly than most alternative products, based on its non-leaching properties and long-lasting lifespan, it provides a more eco-friendly alternative than most products, particularly in the area of cookware.
Before we can fully explore the eco-friendly properties of enamel, first we should understand what enamel is and what it’s used for, as it comes in many forms.
Let’s start with what enamel is…
What is enamel?
Vitreous enamel is also called porcelain enamel, it’s named stems back to the 9th century, based on the German word “smelzan”, which is a derivative of French “esmail”, and Latin “smaltum”.
“Enamelled” along with the term “enamelling” are the common spellings in British English, with slight variations in American English, preferring “enameled” and “enameling”.
Enamel is a material made via a firing process that fuses powdered glass to a substrate – at high temperatures, reaching up to 1,560 °F (850 °C).
The powder goes through a metamorphosis of melting, then flowing and finally hardening into its new required shape which is then both a smooth and durable vitreous coating. The word vitreous comes from the Latin word “vitreum”, which simply means “glass“.
Enamel is a substance that is usually used as an addition to another material. It’s commonly used on glass, pottery – or ceramics, metal, and even stone. Indeed any material that can withstand the fusing process along with the high temperature.
For the majority of its time, “Enameling” technology has mainly been used in decorative arts such as pottery and jewelry.
Many consumer products produced since the 19th century also adopted this technology, such as some cooking vessels, bathtubs, sinks, and counter-tops.
You will even find enamel on (or in) some household appliances such as refrigerators, laundry machinery, and dishwashers, as well as some signage.
A common use of vitreous enamel has also been applied to commercial and industrial materials like enamel paint and the polymer-coated enameled wire.
Much of the pottery ware that was once associated with enamel has faded from existence with the introduction of other alternatives, such as powder coating for example, or Teflon – which in fact is a higher toxicity risk than enamel!
What products contain enamel?
Setting aside the natural form of tooth enamel, of course, there are a number of areas and products in which enamel is used. Here’s the basic list of uses of enamel, some you may already know, others you may not.
Enamel paint, Paint substance that when dry forms a hardened glossy finish or coating
Enamelled glass, glass that has been decoratively finished with vitreous enamel
Overglaze decoration, or enamel, in the use of pottery
Vitreous enamel, a smooth, durable coating made of melted and fused glass powder such as on cookware
Enameled wire, wire insulated with an enamel-like coating
A lot of uses for enamel have now been discontinued, where we see most of the enamel in the modern world is in the use of both cookware and paint. So let’s explore these a little further.
Is enamel paint eco-friendly?
There are no official reports that enamel-based paints are harmful to the environment, however, traditionally, the lower end of the market paints have often been formulated using PVA (PVA stands for Poly Vinyl Acetate) binders.
The most common solvent-based resins – among the large variety of types – are termed ‘alkyd resins’ these are normally used in enamel paints. Typically there are other materials in paint such as lead which have been phased out and are, in fact, deemed a greater risk to the environment.
In recent times, there is a move towards VOC Free (Volatile Organic Compounds) and other more eco-friendly paint made from more organic materials. I for one applaud any progress made to eradicate unnecessary chemicals from all the products we use.
It’s ongoing research and striving to explore improvements of this kind that the Rutakirwa Foundation seeks to lend support – by donating to worthwhile causes in aid of our environment. Feel free to help good causes by making a donation via our Foundation.
Is enamel cookware eco-friendly?
Although traditional cast iron cooking ware is still an important part of any kitchen, a vast majority of chefs and cooks prefer the enamel-coated cooking utensils.
Cast iron which has an enamel coating is eco-friendly and is also much easier to wash and clean and there are no issues regarding seasoning.
The inner enamel coating has some light non-stick characteristics and prevents the iron from leaching into your food. For environmental purposes, this enamel coating is eco-friendly.
These cooking utensils come in a variety of amazing colours to meet the expectations of customers and to match the existing colours in particular kitchen design.
Enamel is eco-friendly
During the manufacturing process, enamel is adhered to other materials such as iron or steel, there is no “poly type”, or perfluoroalkyl chemicals used when manufacturing enamel cookware, making it an eco-friendly product.
When buying from a reputable and good quality manufacturer, enamel cookware has a high wear tolerance and therefore is more eco-friendly over the lifetime of the product. Not to mention a better health alternative to cooking with aluminum, steel or iron-based cookware.
Heating enamel gives no toxic substances, unlike Teflon coated cookware, which can release invisible toxic fumes into the atmosphere, which also causes potential health risks.
Chemicals used in enamel are resistant to breaking down at higher cooking temperatures and therefore maintain their integrity for longer with no release of harmful particles, unlike that of cast iron and steel cookware.
If enamel coating splits
Damage from being dropped or hit, or sudden extreme temperature changes increase the risk of enamel cracking or splitting. If this is the case then there is a risk of particles being absorbed into your food, which may pass through your system but may also pose some risk.
Particles passing through the water system into the environment do not pose any real known threat to wildlife or the ecosystem. The combined contents of enamel that have entered into the natural system over the years would still not likely be sufficient to cause any potential life harming or environmental threats.
Enamel may contain lead
Some people worry about alarming lead levels in the enamel-coated items – since the enamel coating is made up of clay, which is known to leach lead.
Studies have been conducted on enamel coated utensils from trusted brands and no amount of lead has been found on their surfaces both interior or exterior.
The NCBI Study concluded that…
“…the risk of acute or chronic toxicity associated with the use of enameled cookware under normal circumstances is extremely low and negligible”
By contrast, using non-coated cast iron cooking utensils can result in iron raising to toxic levels. This iron would leach into your food from where it will directly go into your body along with the food. Increased levels of iron in the body can lead to serious health issues. This, of course, is not an issue with cast iron utensils having an enamel coating.
Regulations in more progressive countries dictate that lead cannot be used in the manufacture of cookware – along with a whole host of other products. And these regulations are checked and enforced for public health purposes. But this also helps keep lead out of the environmental system.
However, in countries that have more relaxed regulations lead may be used as part of the manufacturing process. Therefore, cheaper enamel products from these countries could contain such materials as lead or cadmium in their enamel coating.
Cheaper enameled cookware, from countries with lax regulations, may contain lead or cadmium in the coating. Lead-free products are a requirement in all U.S states.
So what happens at the end of the enamels life, well, when it comes to cookware…
Toxicity associated with recycling and manufacturing
Recycling the highly toxic fluoride by-products from the enamel and ceramic industry into premium quality reusable materials reduces the overall negative environmental impact of these products.
However, their disposal, since they can’t be recycled again, remains troublesome. The problem is that enamels, like other vitreous chemicals, used in the manufacturing of porcelain or ceramic glazes are made through a process that generates extremely toxic chemicals.
One such chemical is a derivative of fluoride, which exists in the form of hydrofluoric acid in the flue gases from smelting furnaces. This chemical is known to react with lime particles and is converted into a by-product called micronized fluoride lime (MFL).
To conclude then…
Who would have thought that a product developed and widely used since the 19th century would, in fact, prove to be one of the most eco-friendly compounds available today!
It seems a greater problem lies, not so much in the use, or disposal of enamel, but more in the manufacture of it, and the products that enamel is used with – such as furnace and smelting factories.
So we would have to say that despite the qualities of enamel, We hope that eco-friendly alternatives continue to be developed and gain wider use.
Helping to bring this kind of knowledge to the world is what we are all about at the Rutakirwa Foundation. You can support the foundation by donating to our good causes and charitable work directly via our foundation website. Only give what you can afford.
This is where we put funds to good use for environmental, social, cultural and climate-related causes, for the good of everyone.
Till next month,
I remain truly yours,
Serving since 28th December 2008.