With phrases like global warming, greenhouse effect and sustainable management being tossed around in everyday headlines, more people are focusing on the effects of their actions. It's not just about what manufacturing companies are doing to help or hurt the environment; it's also about what people do in their everyday activities, whether that's driving to work, cleaning their bathrooms or shopping for groceries.
So it's no wonder that eco-friendly home-building and renovation has become an entire industry, causing suppliers and homeowners to do things differently. If you follow any home design shows, magazines or Web sites, you know that the biggest projects, whether they're new construction or renovations, are often in the kitchen. So, it just makes sense that homeowners would be interested in how to incorporate green living into this popular space.
There isn't one single green standard, and most of us aren't environmental experts. A good rule of thumb is to consider three different positions: what's in the product; what did it take to produce it and get it to me; and what happens to it when I'm done with it? Using these three questions, you can do your research and decide what fits your needs and your desire to be environmentally conscious. To help, we're going to examine 10 green countertop options.
Terrazzo is crushed-up stone and glass, held together by a binding agent. The countertop is then buffed for a nice smooth surface. You can color or stain the terrazzo for a custom finish and it's a pretty look, so you'll get lots of style points.
How green is it? If the product is made locally, you cut out transportation costs, which is important since terrazzo is heavy to transport. You can also use terrazzo made from recycled glass, in which case you eliminate the energy needed to obtain new stone or glass.
One disadvantage to watch out for is that the binding agents can sometimes release VOCs, volatile organic chemicals. These chemicals can potentially emit hazardous fumes into the air that can cause visual and respiratory issues. (One such chemical is formaldehyde) [source: Salant]. So, try to use a cement binder made from fly ash, a residue of burning coal. Fly ash would otherwise be landfill material, so using that type of cement binder eliminates the VOC issue and also recycles the fly ash.
Terrazzo is great because it has a long life span, but what happens after that? Unfortunately, it can't be recycled, so it ends up as waste. Weigh the green positives and negatives of terrazzo, but don't make any decisions until you read about some other options.
You don't typically think of plastics when you're thinking about environmentally friendly products. In fact, traditional plastic countertops are not very green -- they're usually made from a lot of nonrenewable resources. Additionally, making plastic uses a lot of chemicals and the entire process is energy intensive. So, why are we even considering plastic countertops on our list? Because you can alter how green the countertops are by what materials you choose.
Plastic can be recycled, so you can choose a countertop that has a high percentage of recycled plastic. This old plastic would already be on its way to a landfill or dump, so reusing it is a good move. Some countertops are even made with old yogurt containers [source: U.S. Building Council's Green Home Guide]. Another benefit of recycled plastics is that they don't release VOCs.
There is a downside, however. This type of countertop, while made from recycled materials, cannot be recycled again, so even though you saved the plastic once, you won't be so lucky again.
Before you think a paper countertop pushes the limits of environmental friendliness, let's discuss what exactly it is. It is actually a paper composite, meaning it is made of paper and other materials, including recycled wood, that are mixed with a binder, usually resin or cement. The end result looks like natural stone.
For green purposes, you want to use as much recycled paper as possible. Additionally, you can use wood products, like pulp, from forests that are sustainable, or renewable resources that can be replenished almost as soon as they are cut. Put these two together -- recycled and renewable resources -- and you've got yourself a very green product.
Before you pat yourself on the back, though, consider the resin used in the countertop. If possible, use a resin that is low- or no-VOC. The resin is just a small percentage of the overall countertop, but anything you can do to help makes a difference.
However, the addition of the resin, a type of plastic, makes the finished countertop nonrecyclable. But it can be reused, or portions can be reused, which extends its life span.
So, if you can make a countertop from recycled paper, what other recycled materials are suitable for countertops?
No, this isn't a countertop made out of aluminum foil. The recycled pieces are actually aluminum scrap that would otherwise be thrown away. Instead of being discarded, the material is mixed with a polyester resin to create a nice, smooth surface.
Like any product that uses a resin or some sort of binder, you want to check on the amount of VOC emissions; less is more. But it's the opposite for the aluminum itself; you want a high percentage of recycled aluminum. With some of the brands on the market today, as much as 90 percent of the aluminum is recycled.
Another selling point for recycled aluminum is that it should be able to be recycled again at the end of its life span, provided the manufacturer did not use other substances or finishes that are "less green" in the production. Again, if you do your research, you can know exactly what is in your countertop.
It's easy to assume that natural wood is the best and greenest choice for a countertop. But, as with the other products, you want to investigate.
Ideally, you should use salvaged or reclaimed wood. This cuts down on the need to harvest new product. If you can't use reclaimed wood, the best choice is untreated wood from sustainable, local forests, which minimizes the costs and energy needed for transportation.
Of course, the wood isn't the only thing to consider. If you use a sealer or cleaner on the wood, go with a low-VOC emission product. Additionally, wood countertops may have a laminate on top, and often, these laminates contain formaldehyde. Look for a laminate with a minimal amount of formaldehyde, or even better, one that is formaldehyde-free.
Once all of that has passed your inspection, you'll have a great-looking countertop that has a high green standard. And, the good news is that when you're ready to remodel again, your wood countertop can be recycled.
A native of Asia, bamboo is a fast-growing -- and therefore highly renewable -- plant. The material doesn't require harmful glues and can be fashioned into countertops with standard tools [sources: Whiteley, Stewart].
If that's not enough to convince you to consider bamboo, chew on this: It has more tensile strength than steel. The material has nevertheless remained reasonably priced compared to less-exotic stone products. It's also easy on the eyes, ranging in colors from deep chestnut to light blonde and can be cut into squares or rectangles for mixing and matching [sources: Whiteley, Stewart].
Bamboo isn't without its drawbacks. Some forms are susceptible to stains, not to mention nicks, cuts and slices from utensils and other sharp objects [source: Dwell].
Laminate isn't necessarily an environmentalist's first choice. Here's why: To make a laminate countertop, paper that has been saturated with a resin is compressed at very high temperatures. Next, it is glued to a backing -- usually particleboard or plywood -- and then glued to a cabinet box. Unfortunately, all of that glue and resin can be bad for the environment, not to mention the number of trees that have to be cut down and processed to get the amount of paper required [source: U.S. Building Council's Green Home Guide].
So, how can you green it up? First, you can use a high percentage of recycled plastics and recycled paper to make up the surface. Additionally, you can obtain the paper from forests that have sustainable management guidelines. (They don't wipe out the forests when they harvest the wood.) For the glues, you want to use something that is nontoxic and has low- or no-VOC content. Or, use mechanical fasteners and omit the glue process entirely.
One thing to note: Laminate countertops cannot be recycled, so they will eventually end up in a landfill. However, laminate does offer a big cost advantage over other countertops, though it does get easily marred by heat. If it's an option you're considering, it's good to know how to do it green.
Stainless steel is another material you may not have considered as very eco-friendly. After all, it is a mix of several different metals that have to be mined, including nickel, steel and chromium. The mining alone is a disruptive, energy-intensive process that makes stainless steel less than green.
But things are not always as they seem. In fact, there are stainless steels on the market that contain up to 65, 80 or even 100 percent recycled materials [source: U.S. Building Council's Green Home Guide]. While recycling the material requires energy, it is a fraction of what is needed to extract the metals through virgin mining.
With stainless steel countertops, you don't have to worry about what environmentalists refer to as offgas or emission of VOCs from the actual countertop. Additionally, you can use mechanical fasteners to attach the countertops so you don't have resins or glues or other chemicals affecting air quality.
When you're finished with your stainless steel countertop and ready to remodel again, the countertop can be recycled and reused, another huge plus.
There are main two options: ceramic tile and glass tile. Ceramic tile is made of clay, sand and minerals that get fired, glazed, fired again and then finished -- a very energy-intensive process, starting with mining of the minerals. So, what can you do to raise the green factor? For starters, you can use recycled materials. Additionally, look for tile that is produced locally to cut down on the transportation costs. Ceramic tile has little or no VOC emissions, so there are no worries regarding air quality. But you should investigate imported tiles because there are different guidelines in different countries, and some imported tiles have lead-based glazes.
Glass tile is often the preferred green countertop because the glass itself can be made from 100 percent recycled materials [source: U.S. Building Council's Green Home Guide]. The glass recycling process, called sintering, is much less energy-intensive than making glass tiles from new materials.
There are some downsides to tile. Like ceramic, glass tile is heavy to transport, so buy it locally if you can. With both glass and ceramic tile countertops, the tiles are also tough to remove at the end of the counter's lifecycle. And once you remove them, it's difficult to use them again.
Concrete is a mix of water, cement and usually something like sand. The cement is what raises the eyebrows of environmentally conscientious people. Making and distributing cement is very energy intensive: Global cement production accounts for anywhere from 2.5 to 8 percent of man-made carbon dioxide released in the air [source: U.S. Building Council's Green Home Guide].
The good news for concrete is that cement is only a small percent, around 12 percent, of concrete countertops, and fly ash can actually be used in its place. In the concrete-forming process, fly ash becomes an inert substance, so it won't emit VOCs or other toxins into the air. Another positive for concrete is that using a sealant to protect the surface will not create any offgas effects; it just increases your counter's durability.
Speaking of durability, when the concrete countertop's life span is over, it is very easy to use it again. The material can be crushed, cut up into pieces or reused as whole slabs. This is an excellent benefit because it eliminates the need to produce new concrete.
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