Selecting Countertops Based on Environmental Impact

Wood or marble? Make an informed choice with this rundown of the materials.

Plenty of countertop options are durable, user-friendly, cost-efficient and environmentally friendly, and they come in a range of colors and prices. Following are nine popular materials, with descriptions of their environmental impacts and performance features. The materials are grouped into three categories: natural materials, manufactured materials and recycled-content materials.

Natural Materials

Wood. The manufacturing of wood countertops has relatively little environmental impact, because wood doesn't need to be processed, only sawn, which uses a small amount of energy. Choosing wood countertops that are certified as "sustainably harvested" by the Forest Stewardship Council also helps protect wood as a natural resource. Wood countertops are easily cleaned with soap and water and have inherent properties that protect them from bacteria buildup. Wood also can serve as a built-in cutting surface. Maintenance includes oiling regularly and sanding and resealing scratches as needed.

Granite and marble. Both these natural stones must be quarried, which requires a lot of energy. Transport also can be expensive and environmentally detrimental if the stone needs to be shipped a great distance. Using indigenous stone from salvage or remnants significantly reduces environmental impact. Granite is virtually indestructible, provides a high-end designer look and is heatproof. But it also is very expensive, can crack and requires periodic sealing. Marble likewise provides a high-end look and is waterproof and heatproof. On the downside, it's expensive, can scratch and stains easily unless professionally sealed.

Manufactured Materials

Ceramic tile. Manufacturing ceramic tile requires large amounts of energy because the tiles are fired twice. Installing ceramic tile can affect indoor air quality (IAQ). To protect air quality, install tiles with solvent-free mastic on a durable, rot-proof surface such as cement backer board. Also choose grout sealers free of formaldehyde and low in volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Ceramic tile is easy to clean, heatproof and available in a wide range of colors, textures and designs. It's also durable and can contain recycled content such as glass, porcelain, salvaged ceramic scrap or feldspar tailings. Using ceramic tile does create an uneven counter surface, however. Individual tiles can easily chip or crack, and grout can stain. Costs vary widely based on the tile choice and difficulty of installation.

Concrete. Manufacturing concrete countertops requires a lot of energy, and cement production pollutes more than most processes. Some redeeming environmental qualities of concrete, however, are that recycled materials such as fly ash and glass can be included in the concrete mix for texture and variety, and concrete can be recycled into aggregate at the end of its usable life. When coloring concrete for countertops, be sure nontoxic, natural pigments are mixed into the concrete rather than applying surface stains. Concrete looks exotic and unusual, it’s heat- and scratch-resistant, and new treatments help eliminate cracking and diminish porosity.

Engineered stone. This countertop product is manufactured by combining quartz and pigments with polyester resin and pouring it into a mold to create a dense slab resembling granite. Using regionally manufactured stone and local fabricators cuts down on transportation distance, which is less harmful to the environment. Engineered stone is extremely durable, heat- and stain-resistant, and available in a wider range of colors than natural stone. Its nonporous surface resists scratches and cracks, and unlike natural stone, it does not require annual sealing.

Laminates. Laminate countertops are made of plastic-coated synthetics. The pieces are cut to size and finished on the ends. Originally, all laminate countertops were manufactured with high-VOC papers and adhesives, but healthier laminates are available today. To protect IAQ, choose laminate countertops certified by Greenguard as being made from low-emitting materials that use formaldehyde-free paper and low or nontoxic glues. Laminates are easy to clean, inexpensive and available in the widest range of colors of any countertop material. Among the drawbacks, scratches and chips are almost impossible to repair, seams are visible from the start and distinctive front-edge options can be expensive. Also, laminate countertops have a relatively short life span (15 to 20 years) and can't be recycled.

Solid surface. Solid-surface countertops are made from fillers and resins. The filler is often a form of bauxite, the ore used to produce aluminum. The resins are polyester or acrylic, which are derived from oil and natural gas products. The components of solid-surface countertops are nonrenewable, but solid surface does have some "green" characteristics: it's durable and won't need to be replaced for a long time; it doesn't react readily with other chemicals or elements, which means it has low impact on both indoor and outdoor environments; and it's nontoxic, with virtually no off-gassing of VOCs. Solid-surface countertops are seamless on the surface, heat- and stain-resistant and available in a variety of colors, patterns and styles. Scratches can be easily softened with a nonabrasive scrubbing pad. A drawback to using these countertops in the kitchen is that hot pans can damage the surface. The countertops also are moderately expensive.

Stainless steel. This material is actually a combination of steel, chromium and nickel. These mined components do put a strain on the environment, but stainless steel often contains a large amount of recycled content, and it can be recycled at the end of its usable life. Stainless steel countertops are heat- and stain-resistant, durable, easy to clean and the only countertop material that's safely bleachable. Brushed or textured finishes can help camouflage scratches, and stainless steel creates a professional-looking kitchen. On the downside, stainless steel countertops are very expensive and noisy, they may dent and they aren't suitable for cutting.

Recycled-Content Material

Terrazzo. Originating in Italy, terrazzo was traditionally made with cement and marble. Today's terrazzo countertops are made of a host of recycled materials—crushed stone, glass, metal and even seashells—that have been bonded with a colored epoxy resin binder and polished smooth. A terrazzo countertop is made to last for the life of the home and can be recycled at the end of its usable life. The countertops are durable, easily cleaned and resistant to bacteria growth. And they make a one-of-a-kind design statement.

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