Is cork the greenest option for your countertop?

The bark from cork oak can be stripped about every 10 years without the trees having to be cut down. See more green living pictures.
APCOR

Your kitchen countertops always look like you just cooked a Thanksgiving feast no matter how hard you try to clean them. And you can't hide the coffee stains and knife marks anymore -- the counters definitely show the years of wear and tear. Sounds like it's probably time to replace them. The good news is you have an assortment of eco-friendly countertop materials to choose from, and these green options are becoming more affordable the more popular they become. Of course, that doesn't mean they're dirt cheap. But, taking this one step to go green in your kitchen gets your home one step closer to sustainability.

The most common green countertop materials on the market today include the following:

  • cork
  • bamboo
  • wheatboard (a mix of fibers from palm trees, cornhusks, seed husks, wheat and rye grass)
  • concrete mixed with fly ash or other waste products
  • recycled aluminum, glass or porcelain

All of these materials are made from either recycled or sustainable materials. Cork, for example, comes from the bark of cork oak trees. The bark can be stripped about every 10 years and the trees never have to be cut down [source: APCOR]. Wheatboard, on the other hand, is made from unusable portions of already-harvested plants like wheat, cornstalk, hemp, rice, rye grass and straw that would have otherwise become scrap. Then there's concrete made with scrap sediment and fly ash; crushed scrap aluminum; glass; and porcelain that all transform hard-to-recycle materials into stunning and durable countertop slabs.

But with this many green options, is cork, the most light-weight and fastest regenerating resource, the greenest option? That depends on what you want to save.

Supremely Green

So what exactly makes cork so green? For starters, it's as close to an indefinitely renewable resource as you can get. Trees in the forests of places such as Peru, which get ample sunlight and warmth year-round, grow at lightening speed. The bark from these oaks, which supply the cork, is harvested during the middle of the year, usually mid-May through August [source: APCOR].

The bark won't be mature enough to be harvested again for about 10 years, but that one tree can regenerate this building material without ever being cut down. The harvesting process can continue for centuries because the average cork tree can survive for about 200 years [source: APCOR]. That means one tree can potentially supply a lot of cork.

In addition, cork is easy to recycle, and one company, SuBERRA, is at the forefront of manufacturing countertops from post-industrial cork rather than new cork [source: Ecosupplycenter.com]. The company uses scraps from bottle-stopper manufacturers and mixes them with formaldehyde-free polyurethane adhesive and compresses it into cork countertops [source: Ecohaus]. The end result is countertops that are, like cork flooring, durable, heat and water resistant, and even impervious to bacteria like E.coli and salmonella [source: Ecosupplycenter.com].

Durability is a big advantage to cork countertops. The cells in cork are tightly fused and extremely compact, which makes it nearly impossible for liquids or gasses to penetrate [source: APCOR]. In fact, when the cork is still attached to a tree's bark, these tightly fused cells protect the tree from external elements, such as microbes [source: Green Home Guide]. That's especially important in a kitchen, where spills happen all the time, and heat-producing appliances such as ovens and cooktops can generate steam. Because cork is naturally grown to protect from microbes, it will better fend off food-borne microbes on your counter [source: Green Home Guide].

One disadvantage to cork countertops, though, could be the price tag -- they're expensive, and can run as much as $80 per square foot [source: Ecohaus]. If that's out of your budget, there are other green options. We'll discuss those next.

What Could Be Greener?

EnviroSLAB takes unusable glass and porcelain and crushes it to make mosaic-style countertops.
EnviroSLAB takes unusable glass and porcelain and crushes it to make mosaic-style countertops.
Sarah Alair/Sarah Alair Photography and Tonya Wildfond/Team Elmer's

Cork is arguably the greenest option for some, but for people in certain geographical areas, other materials might be cheaper and more environmentally friendly. In the Pacific Rim, for instance, locally harvested bamboo is much cheaper because it grows in abundance there and because there's no added cost of shipping it from one part of the globe to the next. And since bamboo is technically a grass, it regenerates quickly after cutting, and can be harvested again in about three to five years.

Another option is purchasing countertops made from recycled glass and porcelain. For some people, salvaging construction materials that would otherwise end up in a dump is a much greener option than purchasing cork countertops. And unlike cork or bamboo, these materials aren't harvested from the forest, but instead from waste and scraps industries have no use for. The unusable glass and porcelain is crushed and reformed into custom mosaic-style countertops that are colorful and durable surfaces able to withstand the rigors of the kitchen [source: EnviroSLAB].

Shop around for the best prices for these recycled countertops. Prices can range anywhere from $50 to more than $100 per square foot depending on things like color, what materials are used to make them and how much your contractor charges for installation [source: EnviroSLAB].

Related Articles

  • APCOR. "Overview: From Bark to Bottle." RealCork.org. (March 1, 2011)http://www.realcork.org/artigo/3.htm
  • Bandon, Alexandra. "How to Lay a Cork Floor." Thisoldhouse.com. (March 1, 2011)http://www.thisoldhouse.com/toh/how-to/intro/0,,1550493,00.html
  • Ecohaus. "SuBERRA." (March 3, 2011) http://www.ecohaus.com/C-791/suberra
  • Kermani-Peterson, Shohreh. "Is cork laminate a realistic option for a kitchen countertop?" Green Home Guide. (March 1, 2011)http://greenhomeguide.com/askapro/question/is-cork-laminate-a-realistic-option-for-a-kitchen-countertop
  • Menesis, J. L. Calheiros E. "The cork industry in Portugal." University of Wisconsin. (Feb. 24, 2011)http://www.uwec.edu/Geography/Ivogeler/Travel/Portugal/cork-article2.htm
  • World Wide Fund for Nature. "Cork Oak." wwf.panda.org. (March 1, 2011)http://wwf.panda.org/what_we_do/endangered_species/cork_oak/