Environmentally friendly countertops that make a difference
Countertops are a place for serious work. But you also want them to be beautiful–and easy on the Earth. After a few minutes in a kitchen store, you’ll know which ones suit your esthetic. But figuring out which ones are green takes a little longer. First, ask yourself, what environmental problems do they solve? A granite counter is durable, so you won’t have to replace it anytime soon. But getting it out of the ground may harm natural habitats at the quarry site and downstream. On the other hand, a counter made from salvaged wood reduces pressure to harvest trees. Counters made from recycled paper and water-based resins may be putting your junk mail to good use. None of these products is perfectly green, but some do make an environmental difference.
- Consider keeping your countertops. Sprucing up what you already have is easier on the environment and your wallet than buying new. If that’s not workable, check out salvage yards and online classified–maybe you can use someone else’s.
When shopping, look for materials that are
- Healthy. Pay attention to what goes underneath the counter. Many counters are installed on top of a backing like plywood to provide stiffness and strength. Make sure the backing has no added urea formaldehyde, or, if it does, seal it on all sides with a zero-VOC, water-based sealant. Also, if you purchase a wood counter, the manufacturer may recommend a polyurethane-type sealer for water resistance. If the sealer will be applied in your home rather than in the factory, choose a zero- or low-VOC water-based product.
- Renewable. If you’re leaning toward wood countertops, there are many green options. Some are made of salvaged wood, some with wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), and some with the newest kid on the block, bamboo (which is really a grass). Although a polyurethane sealant can help, wood and bamboo counters will scratch and stain, very hot pots can leave burn marks, and you need to be careful about not leaving liquid spills standing for too long. Some people consider the worn look of a wood counter a plus–it shows you know your way around the kitchen. But if you want an impervious surface, wood’s not for you. Also made from renewable resources is linoleum, an old-fashioned product typically used on floors that occasionally shows up on countertops. It’s made mostly from eco-friendly linseed oil.
- Abundant. Old-fashioned ceramic tiles are made from abundant clay. While energy goes into firing the tiles, they are long-lasting and don’t give off unhealthy chemicals. The main drawback? The grout, which can attract crumbs, dirt, and mold.
- Recycled. Countertops with post-consumer recycled content include certain brands of ceramic and glass tiles, terrazzo (made of glass chips embedded in concrete or epoxy resin), stainless steel, and at least one brand that uses recycled paper mixed with a water-based resin.
- Local. If it comes from within a couple of hundred miles of your kitchen, stone is another good choice. Its proximity to you reduces the energy needed for transportation, and chances are the quarries in your neck of the woods have to comply with more stringent environmental-protection laws than in some other parts of the world.
- The “end-grain” type butcher-block counter is harder than the horizontal strips and holds up better to whacks with the cleaver. For real butcher block that you’ll be cutting on, skip the plastic finish and use an oil finish–tung and linseed oil products meant for countertops are good options. Food-grade oil that may go rancid isn’t a good choice. Reapply the oil now and then to protect the wood.
- If you’ve chosen tile for your counter, you’ll have a decision to make about grout. Portland cement-based grouts are generally considered low-toxic; most contain latex additives but they stop emitting fumes once the grout has cured. Make sure the kitchen is well ventilated when using grout or other adhesives, paints, and sealants, and consider sealing off the kitchen from the rest of the house while doing the work. You can cut down on grout lines by using larger tiles. Apply a zero-VOC grout sealer for moisture resistance.
- Less-green options
- Popular for decades, seamless, smooth, thick solid-surface countertops are durable and come in many colors. But they’re basically a big slab of plastic. What’s green about that? You can get a similar look for less money with a basic laminate, which is a thin sheet of compressed paper and plastic. And laminate uses fewer resources. Just be sure to get it with a formaldehyde-free plywood or MDF backing.
- Engineered stone counters are made of stone chips in a plastic resin; unless the chips are from a post-consumer source (which isn’t common), there’s no green advantage to them.
- Concrete counters aren’t particularly green. The primary component of most of them is portland cement, which requires lots of energy. Be aware that concrete counters, like concrete floors, have a propensity to crack and are likely to stain.
- What about cost? Countertop prices range from $5 a square foot for some plastic laminates to more than $200 a square foot for rare granites and marbles. Going green doesn’t have to cost more, but make sure you’re doing a fair comparison. A recycled glass countertop will be pricey, but no more so than many high-end granites. Recycled-paper composites may cost more than your basic laminate, but less than many plastic solid-surface counters.
…to your health
Plywood and other counter backings without added urea formaldehyde help protect your indoor air from dangerous chemicals.
…to the Earth
FSC-certified wood counters protect forests and the ecosystems they support. Salvaged-wood counters and counters with high post-consumer recycled content reduce waste and resource consumption. Local stone reduces the energy required for transportation of countertops, which increases fossil-fuel use and contributes to global warming.
Ripping and dumping. When remodeling, many people rip counters out of kitchens and toss them in the Dumpster. But if removed with care, they can be reused in your laundry room, office, or workroom–or in someone else’s home.
- Questions for the retailer or contractor:
- Is the product made with rapidly renewable or recycled-content materials? If so, what is the percentage and what is the source of the materials? If the countertop is made with wood or bamboo, is it FSC-certified?
- Where did the countertop materials come from and where were the countertops manufactured? Are locally sourced materials or locally made countertops available?
- What steps does the manufacturer take to reduce energy, water, and waste during manufacturing?
- How long will the countertop last? At the end of its life, can it be recycled locally or returned to the manufacturer for recycling?
- Does the countertop material offgas VOCs? Is the product independently certified to be low- or zero-VOC?
- Will the countertop require a backing such as plywood, medium density fiberboard (MDF), or particle board? If yes, is there a urea formaldehyde-free backing available?
- Will any adhesives, grouts, mortars, or sealants be used during installation? Are low- or zero-VOC products available?
- Does the manufacturer recommend a specific maintenance product? If yes, ask for the material safety data sheet (MSDS), so you can assess the product’s ingredients.
- Will the installer be able to remove your old countertops intact so they can be reused elsewhere? If they can’t be reused, can they be recycled?
- If you’re confident of your do-it-yourself skills, you might consider installing the countertops yourself, especially if you are using a material that’s fairly easy to cut and install, such as laminate or butcher block. For materials that are more challenging, such as granite and other stones, tile, concrete, and thick plastic solid-surface, most people choose professional installation.
- If you’re having new cabinets installed, it’s best to hold off on completing the countertop order until after the base cabinets are installed. To ensure a precise fit, the countertop fabricator (or you, if it’s a DIY project), should take the final measurements when the cabinets are in place.
- For advice on what questions to ask contractors and tradespeople, see our “What to Ask Your Contractor” article.