Topping It Off – Sustainable Countertop Options • by Erin Diamond

Are you working on a kitchen remodel?   Doing your best to choose materials that don’t have a negative effect on your children’s future and the health of the planet?   Sometimes it can be hard  – the number of decisions that arise everyday is staggering during a remodel, even without factoring in toxicity, price, and planetary footprint.

Most of the builders, realtors, and house-flippers we know say the same thing… granite sells.  We know – there is not much that compares to the natural patterns and uniqueness of every slab… and the fact that cool stone is a perfect workspace to roll out pastries and pizza dough is hard to dispute.  But what are the environmental and health impacts of stone countertops?

  1. Distance traveled. There are a few granite-mining US states, but the majority of natural stone sold comes from Brazil, India, and China.  Stone is a heavy material, making shipping costly and increasing global pollution.  If you wish to buy stone for your remodel, perhaps choose one from the closest state to you.
  2. Toxic sealers.  Stone is porous and will stain if greasy or pigmented foods sit for a while.  To help with this, your counter should be sealed with stone sealer every 6 months or so.  Most sealers are toxic and filled with chemicals that can off-gas into your home.  If you absolutely must have your lovely stone, look into a sealer that is a little less toxic than the rest.  Here are two options (but as always, test in inconspicuous areas first): Miracle Cover (http://www.miraclecoverinc.com), and Safecoat Mexeseal (http://www.afmsafecoat.com/products.php?page=2)
  3. Radon.  The July issue of the NY Times revealed alarming results about granite testing much higher for radon and radiation than EPA recommends in the home.  Granite contains uranium, which releases radon when it breaks down.  See the full article at: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/24/garden/24granite.html
  4. Lastly, check out what a quarry looks like.  We are taking a material that has been part of the earth’s crust for potentially millions of years.  It cannot be replaced in fathomable lifetimes.

granite1

Okay, now we’ll discuss some options that may still be aesthetically pleasing to you, without such a large environmental impact.  I have undoubtedly left some out, due to the rapid development of new materials and the varying levels of “green” manufacturers tout in their new products.  The following are products we are familiar with, or that are created by companies that seem to really walk their green talk.  All pricing is for countertop material only, without installation:

Butcher Block (Sustainably harvested or from reclaimed wood) – Butcher block is a great option for a countertop.  Many companies now make butcher block from reclaimed or salvaged wood, or from Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-Certified wood.  Pricing varies – check with local suppliers (usually from $35-$100/sf).

  • Pros:  can be custom made to specific dimensions, grain, and type of wood; can be sanded down for generations to reveal a new subsurface underneath; fully biodegradable if a natural finish is used; all natural; does not contribute harmful chemicals to indoor air quality or during manufacture; heat resistant; beautiful variation in grain and character; reclaimed wood usually has an interesting story.
  • Cons:  requires regular maintenance with oil finish; may not be the ideal option for around the sink; some woods may be pricey.

EcoTop – Made from FSC-certified fiber that is a 50/50 blend of bamboo and post-consumer recycled paper, bound with a water based resin.  EcoTop requires regular maintenance with oil finish, pricing is in the $65/sf range.  Made in Tacoma, Washington.

  • Pros:  available in 10 earth-tone colors; durable and hard with a warm feel of wood; very low water absorption; sleek, polished look; somewhat simple fabrication and installation.
  • Cons:  may scratch like a hard tropical wood; water-based copolymer resin is not biodegradable – your counter may be around for millennia.

Icestone – 1.25″ thick slabs made from 100% recycled glass and non-toxic pigments in a cement matrix.  Pricing is in the $100 – $150/sf range.  Made in Brooklyn, New York.

  • Pros:  contains no petrochemicals; 29 different colors; factory recycles greywater, uses natural light and soy-based lubricants in machinery, and has a goal of zero waste in the manufacturing process; heat resistant; cradle-to-cradle certification.
  • Cons:  any cement-based or natural stone countertop has a propensity to stain from oils or etch from contact with acidic foods – careful sealing and maintenance required;  pricing keeps Icestone from being a viable option for most.

Marmoleum – a brand of natural linoleum made from linseed oil, wood flour, plant rosin, limestone, organic pigments, and jute backing.  It is usually used for flooring material, but can be an economical choice for a countertop.  Pricing for material ranges from $3-$6/sf, produced in various European countries.

  • Pros:  affordable, hundreds of colors to choose from, simple installation on plywood substrate; repairable (within reason).
  • Cons:  somewhat soft in comparison to other options, not heat or scratch resistant; requires trim on counter edges, making a seam.

Paperstone – made from recycled paper or cardboard in a petroleum-free, phenolic resin base.  It comes in “Original” and “Certified,”  Original is made with 100% post-consumer recycled cardboard, Certified is made with FSC-certified 100% post-consumer standard office paper.  Regular maintenance with oil finish is recommended.  Available in thicknesses of .75″, 1″, and 1.25.” Prices range from $30-$45/sf, depending on thickness.  Made in Hoquiam, Washington.

  • Pros:  available in multiple colors, durable and hard with a warm feel of wood; low water apsorption; sleek, polished look; somewhat simple fabrication and installation; heat resistant to roughly 350 degrees.
  • Cons:  may scratch like a hard tropical wood; not biodegradable or recyclable; resin may yellow over time – warm tones don’t reveal ambering as much, choose colors accordingly.

Squak Mountain Stone: made with recycled paper, recycled glass,  and post-industrial fly-ash in a cement base.  Sold by the slab in a variety of sizes, 5 colors, and 1.5″ thickness.  Material may be heat resistant, but the finish is not.  Pricing ranges from $45-$70/sf.  Made in Woodinville, Washington.

  • Pros:  materials for manufacture are sourced from within 130 miles of factory; unique look with character; much lighter than a solid cement top; organic look makes maintenance and touch-ups DIY-friendly.
  • Cons:  no flex strength – installation requires careful handling; slabs are hand-poured, meaning each one may vary in thickness and color tone; seams are difficult to blend in; may etch or stain over time (like any cement-based material) – regular application of finish required.

Vetrazzo: made from 85% recycled glass from curbside bins, traffic lights, stemware, etc. in a cement base.  Slabs are manufactured in Richmond, California in slabs that are 1.25″ thick.  Pricing is $75-$120/sf.

  • Pros:  high recycled content; factory uses natural daylighting and recycles greywater; socially responsible; many color choices; heat resistant and durable; recyclable – slabs can be taken back to the manufacturing facility to be made into new material.
  • Cons:  cement base makes Vetrazzo vulnerable to stain and patina between the glass – sealing (about once a year) required;  pricing is beyond the means of many.

All in all, there are many options on the market that can provide stylish, durable alternatives to the granite-mania that has overtaken the countertop market.  Right now the largest obstacle seems to be price point.  As with most building materials, the more people that demand green countertop options, the more companies that will make them… and the more competitive the price will become.  Let’s celebrate the small steps we are taking, and do what we can to push manufacturers toward a healthier, safer, more balanced planet.

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8 responses to “Topping It Off – Sustainable Countertop Options • by Erin Diamond

  1. Erin,

    Thank you for the very in-depth report, focusing not only on the environmental effects of the existing natural stone option, but also on the health and function issues concerned with the different countertop options. Rarely does a blog take into account the numerous decisions that go into deciding on a countertop.

    If I may, I wanted to make one correction concerning Vetrazzo. We use no resin. Invented in 1996, Vetrazzo is the original recycled glass countertop. We use 100% recycled glass in a cementicious base. 85% of the final product is glass giving Vetrazzo the highest recycled content of any of the recycled glass countertop options.

    You bring up some good points about sealing. The benefits of recycled glass countertops over stone is that glass is non-porous and will not stain. So in the end only a small percent of the total make up of Vetrazzo is porous and therefore only requires sealing once a year. Sealing a kitchen countertop typically takes around 30 minutes. Done once to twice a year will properly protect your countertop for a total of an hour’s effort. While sealing with a low VOC sealant, open the windows and you will hardly notice the off gassing from the sealant. Cleaning up red wine and acidic foods in a reasonable time will keep your Vetrazzo looking gorgeous for many years to come.

    Thank you again for your commitment to writing about different aspects of protecting our environment and I look forward to reading more from you in the future.

    Cheers,

    Craig

    • Thank you for reading, Craig. I am impressed that you responded within 12 hours of posting! We appreciate your feedback – and your product. I knew the slabs had a cementitious base, but the additives in the proprietary mixture made me think it had some sort of resin, as well. I updated the Vetrazzo section, and hope this information is more accurate. Thank you for your diligence, and for contributing to a more sustainable market!

  2. Thank you for the correction, I will link to this blog on our website as a resource. I can’t tell you what our proprietary additives are that make up the final 8% of the Vetrazzo mixture, but I can tell you that they are not petroleum and, like glass and cement, they are inert which is what helps to make Vetrazzo a Zero VOC product.

    Cheers,

    Craig

  3. I have read articles all over the internet that indicate the EcoTop is about $35 sf, however, all of the quotes that I have been getting are about $80 sf ($15 for fabrication included). Has the price increased that significantly in recent months or am I just contacting greedy suppliers.

    • Hi Shelley,
      Thanks so much for your comment. The price we quoted was for material only, based on information we got from a local retailer who has since gone out of business. The only price I am able to get online runs about $60 per square foot for a 3/4″ thick slab, so I will update my post accordingly. Hopefully we will see more businesses carrying this product, and the price will go down!
      Thanks again,
      Erin

  4. Erin,

    Thanks for your great overview of countertop options (and other topics). Over the last five years we have found that almost all of our clients eventually select porcelain tile for their counters once they evaluate cost and performance. Tile now comes a great variety of styles and large sizes (up to 24 X 24) with very straight edges such that grout lines can be minimized in number and size. Costs can be as little as $8/sf for material and homeowners can install it themselves or have it installed by a professional at about $20 sf. We steer our clients toward domestic tile manufacturers with green production practices and recycled content when possible. Some clients find great tile deals at ReStore, the Rebuilding Center, tile store seconds and Craig’s List. In terms of performance, porcelain tile is the best counter material we found being very resistant to heat, scratching and staining. Every material (except maybe stainless?) does require some maintenance to keep it in tip top shape and with tile it is resealing the grout once a year. As you well know there is no perfect green material, but we think the fact that large format tiles can look great for years may reduce the impulse to remove it because one doesn’t like the staining and patina that happens with some other materials you mentioned.

  5. Icestone countertops is not bad product.
    Thanks for tips about countertops.

  6. Every Squak Mountain Stone concrete slab is hand-finished so it has a unique character similar to that of natural stones such as marble, travertine, and limestone. Squak Mountain Stone is generally used in kitchens and bathrooms as a counter top, table top or vanity top. If you haven’t seen the “new” Squak Mountain stone you really don’t know what you are missing out on! Tiger Mountain Innovations, LLC has recently made some great product improvements to their Squak Mountain Stone product. The coal fly-ash previously contained in the material has been substituted out with more recycled glass. Portland cement was substituted for low-carbon cement over 2 years ago as low-carbon cement releases much less co2 into the atmosphere during the manufacturing process. Furthermore, the slabs are available in a nominal 56″x96″ size at 1-3/8″ thickness. Slabs are gauged on the backside to ensure consistent thickness and ease of seaming for fabricators. A state-of-the-art vibration technology is used to minimize pinholes and give a more consistent character from slab to slab.

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