Green Building Elements: Alternative Countertops

July 16, 2007

There are a number of options available when it comes to selecting material for counters and tops. There are options from the all-natural to the all-synthetic, and ranges in between. Some countertop materials are more impervious to stains or heat than others are. Colors range throughout the pallette, and if one manufacturer’s product doesn’t offer a particular color, another option likely may.

The most common materials are plastic laminate and solid surface materials. Plastic laminate is a thin sheet of colored plastic glued to a backing which is most often composition wood board – a combination of wood bits and glue – which offgasses formaldehyde from the urea formaldehyde glue used to make it. Solid surface countertops (including such brands as Corian) are made from plastics and epoxy resins. Some solid surface materials have some mineral content (like Zodiaq, a sister line to Corian that incorporates quartz chips into the material), which lessens the use of petrochemicals and other synthetics.

There are many other possibilities to be considered. Individual style as well as tolerance for character and variability are also part of the decision-making process. A person who wants a very pristine appearance may not be suited for a material like soapstone, which will show marks and develop a character over time. Ideally, a countertop should be as long-lasting as possible, so that the material doesn’t need to be replaced and it stays out of the landfill.

Granite is a natural stone material. It does not wear out or decay, and can potentially be re-used. It does not break down, and discarded countertops only contribute bulk to landfills. The negatives with using granite include the mining process and the shipping. Mining is inevitable for any mineral product, and quarrying of granite for building purposes has a lot lower overall environmental impact than, say coal mining. As a stone product, it is pretty resistant to heat, but some things can leave stains on it. Increasingly, stone products are being imported from Asia, and the shipping impacts and environmental costs of that versus more locally sourced materials should be considered. Soapstone, slate, and other alternative stone products may be another option, particularly if they are regionally produced near the area where they are to be installed.

A number of solid surfacing products have more of a green edge to them these days. Avonite has a line of solid surfacing countertops which have some recycled content. They are re-using reclaimed solid surface material (presumably pre-consumer recycling, but reducing waste nonetheless) in one line. IceStone is a product that uses recycled glass and concrete. It is not a solid surface material. The company also notes that "McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC) awarded Cradle to Cradle™ SILVER Certification to IceStone durable surfaces." Paperstone is a product made from recycled paper, and includes a line that uses 100% post-consumer paper in its products. Paperstone is FSC certified, and the company notes that it uses a water based resin to manufacture its countertops. All of these options offer increased durability (even PaperStone resists heat up to 350 degrees F). But the manufacture and shipping may be a consideration. (PaperStone is manufactured in Washington state, and IceStone is made in Brooklyn, so if you are within 500 miles of either of these manufacturers, LEED would consider them a local material supplier.)

There is even the option of a concrete countertop for a serious do-it-yourselfer. Concrete countertops offer great flexibility in configuration, and can be inlaid with decorative elements and finished in a wide range of options. Concrete is generally produced fairly locally, so the shipping is reduced. But there is more embodied energy in manufacturing concrete than in some other materials. And the production of cement is a major contributor to atmospheric pollution.

Stainless steel countertops are used in commercial kitchens because of their durability and easy cleanability. While stainless steel countertops might be an option for some, they are generally too institutional looking for most households. Steel has much more embodied energy in the processing of metal. But it is also eminently recyclable at the end of its useful life. Unless there is another use for a natural stone or a synthetic countertop, it will most likely be down-cycled into some lesser use, or else go into a landfill. But a stainless steel counter can be recycled into other steel products.

Wood is another possibility that can be considered. Wood butcher block can be very durable, though it will develop wear and exhibit marks as it is used over time. While many people may not like the way it looks after a few years, the honesty of the appearance may be appealing to some, and the low impact nature of the material may make it a choice to consider.