A beautiful countertop is the signature improvement in a kitchen, perhaps the first thing one notices when entering the space. But not all countertops are the same with respect to health and environmental impact, and since the countertop is your food preparation surface, some research into healthy countertop options is warranted.
Conventional counter choices, including laminate and engineered solid surfaces, may contain chemicals considered harmful to human health. And stone, while a natural material, is energy intensive to mine, shape and ship. But with all the beautiful green options available these days, you’re sure to find a healthy, environmentally friendly countertop to suit your needs.
There’s a lot to consider when choosing a counter surface you’ll be preparing meals on for years, maybe decades. In addition to its green features, you’ll want to take into account what other considerations are important to you, such as cost, looks, durability, and maintenance.
When you’re sorting through your options, keep an eye out for useful certifications, particularly:
- Cradle to Cradle: A stringent certification that evaluates the product for reusability and its impact on human and environmental health.
- Forest Stewardship Council (FSC): Certifies that the wood, if used in your countertop, was sourced from sustainably managed forests.
- Greenguard: Certifies low chemical emissions.
Also look for recycled content, whether the material is renewable, and how much energy is required to make the product. While concrete is incredibly durable, for example, it requires a lot of energy to make it. Also be sure to ask about potential toxins in materials, as even some “green” products can include resins made of chemicals you might not want in your kitchen. When possible, choose materials sourced locally to cut down on the energy required for transportation. Almost all bamboo comes from China, for example, so the energy used in transporting it, to some extent, undercuts the green points bamboo gets from its renewability.
Joel Hirshberg, founder of Green Building Supply, explains that there is no obvious winner of the greenest countertop contest, as “Green depends on your definition.” What Hirshberg looks for first and foremost is a product that’s healthy for the home’s inhabitants, ideally made with natural ingredients. His second criteria for choosing counters might surprise you: aesthetics. Hirshberg explains, “If things are beautiful people keep them around.” A counter that you use for decades can be a greener choice than one you replace multiple times, so Hirshberg advises considering repairability when choosing countertop materials. Natural materials, he says, are typically more repairable than synthetics.
Next he considers the way the product was made, particularly what toll it took on the earth and how much recycled content it contains. He also takes into account how the workers who made the product were treated.
You’re probably familiar with the conventional countertop options, such as granite, marble, solid surfaces like Corian, and tile. To see some of the popular eco-friendly options listed here below, you may have to visit a green home store or order a sample.
‘Green’ Countertop Materials
A popular and cost-effective option, counters made of recycled paper use post-consumer paper fiber combined with resin, in some cases sourced from natural materials like cashew shells. Recycled paper counters are hard surfaces that resist nicks and stains, and they can be sanded to remove scratches that do occur. Possible drawbacks: Like all counters made with resins or sealed with a finish, placing hot items on a paper counter will scorch it. Paper-based counters can reportedly withstand heat up to 350 degrees, but taking something off the stove or out of the oven and placing it on the counter isn’t recommended. The resins used in making paper counters also means they aren’t recyclable the way some counter materials are.
The resins used in paper countertops are a small percentage of the countertop material, but should still be considered in your choice of paper countertop suppliers. For example, PaperStone paper counters use a proprietary “petroleum-free” phenolic resin. And look for paper countertops using FSC “food safe” pulp content.
Recycled glass comes in the form of tiles or surfaces bonded together with epoxy or cement. They are available in a dizzying range of colors, and usually with distinctive, flecked patterns. Recycled glass counters are low maintenance, high in post-consumer recycled content and very durable and scratch-resistant. Resin can be used to repair chips. Drawbacks: The epoxy used in some products may be petroleum-based and can contain chemicals like phthalates. Some companies claim their resins are zero-VOC, and that there is no detectable off-gassing after curing.
You can also use recycled glass tiles, which use far less energy to make than ceramic made from new materials. In theory glass tiles could be recycled, but removing tiles is challenging. Grouted countertops are difficult to keep clean, so tiles are often reserved for backsplashes.
Loren Schirber, owner of Minneapolis-based Natural Built Home calls quartz a “lighter green” countertop option than recycled paper or glass. Long-lasting and low maintenance, naturally hard quartz is combined with resin to create a nonporous surface. A quartz counter’s greenness depends somewhat on the manufacturer. If you can find a product sourcing materials locally, you can cut down on the shipping footprint. The resins, Schirber says, contain VOCs, but they are allowed to off-gas in a warehouse for 90 days before being installed and should not release much into the home after that.
A less widely-available option, counters made from recycled yogurt containers, milk jugs, and other post-consumer plastics come in numerous patterns and colors. Recycled plastic counters have varying amounts of recycled content and are lower in cost than some counter materials. While they are durable and moisture-resistant, they do not withstand heat and can scratch easily.
Sustainably-sourced wooden countertops may be made from recycled or salvaged lumber or FSC-certified timber. Reclaimed wood is an especially sustainable option, as it requires no virgin materials, but recycled lumber and wood from sustainably managed forests also have relatively low embodied energy. Wood is durable and can be fastened mechanically, which eliminates the need for adhesives. When removed it can be reused for other projects, burned for heating, or shredded for use as mulch. Drawbacks: Wood isn’t suitable for wet applications, such as the area around the kitchen sink, unless the surface treatment (e.g. varnish) is renewed periodically. The finish on wood countertops can be compromised by putting hot pots directly on the surface. But with some care and maintenance, a wood countertop can be beautiful in a modern kitchen.
Bamboo’s a favored green building material because it’s a fast-growing, renewable resource. Bamboo is also harder than many hardwoods. However, most bamboo comes from China, so there’s a significant transportation footprint. Look for FSC-certified bamboo. Schirber cautions that bamboo tends to “move a lot” with fluctuations in humidity and generally does not recommend it for long spans of counter. Some countertop designs feature a section of bamboo inset into a different countertop material, with this section used as a cutting board.
One of least expensive counter options is also perhaps the most surprising. Made of entirely natural, renewable and recycled materials, linoleum is durable and water-resistant. Hirshberg points out that when divers retrieved 100-year-old remains of the Titanic, much of the linoleum flooring used on the ship was still intact after a century under water! A much-used green flooring option, perhaps linoleum counters will catch on.
Endlessly recyclable and often containing much recycled content, stainless steel is very durable and easily disinfected for safe food preparation. A stainless counter is long-lasting, hard wearing and resists cut marks, which is why these counters are commonly used in restaurants and commercial food prep operations. But if you’ve ever owned a stainless steel appliance, you know this material is prone to showing streaks and smudges.
Concrete is not inherently the greenest material, as it’s energy-intensive to make and transport, though some components may be locally sourced using recycled content to lessen impact. But its durability means a concrete counter can last a lifetime. When it’s finally removed, it can also be reused or recycled into new concrete products. Note that if you choose to dye your concrete, you’ll want to do a little research into the chemical safety of the dyes. Concrete is pretty porous and needs to be resealed regularly. It can also be prone to cracking when hot pots are routinely placed on its surface.
Other Countertop Considerations
The greenest countertop option? Find materials at a local salvage yard or reuse store, says Schirber. Diverting materials from the landfill, whether a slab of granite, some reclaimed wood, or sheet metal seriously shrinks the footprint of your renovation project.
Don’t forget the backing, grout, and sealers. Plywood and particleboard backing use binders and glues that can contain chemicals you’d rather not have in your home, like formaldehyde. Ask your builder or lumberyard about what’s in the wood products they’re selling. When choosing sealers and grouts, look for nontoxic options, generally available through green home stores and online dealers.
Hirshberg also urges cooks to use cutting boards, as most counter surfaces will show nicks if you cut directly on them, and those that don’t will dull your knife. Take care of your counters and they can last you a lifetime.