Choosing the Best Countertop for your Home … and the Environment

Choosing countertops for a newly remodeled kitchen can be daunting. Because our clients are often as “sustainably minded” as we are, they usually have three main criteria when choosing countertop:

  1. Attractiveness
  2. Durability
  3. Sustainability

According to home remodeling shows, it can seem as if the only possible choices are granite or quartz. But are those really the best options? Let’s look at some of the best countertop materials and their environmental impact.

Natural Stone

We used granite (Onyx Marble & Granite) with subtle shades of green in this recent project.

Granite and marble are very popular natural countertop materials. Granite is the most prevalent, comes in a wide range of colors, and is very durable. Both materials must be quarried – which requires energy – and, depending on where the mine is, slabs may need to be transported a long way. While natural stone isn’t a renewable resource, there is plenty of it. Overall, the carbon footprint of natural stone depends on where the stone was quarried and how far it had to travel to get to your kitchen. One thing to consider: some homeowners have success recycling granite counters by either selling or donating them when they remodel.

Love the look of marble? We do too, but we sometimes caution against using it. Marble provides a high-end look but it’s not as durable as granite. It can scratch easily and is more porous.  In fact, over time, marble surfaces can develop tiny cracks so it’s important NOT spill red wine or spill anything acidic like tomato sauce! We prefer to use it in lower traffic bathrooms. If you like the look – white with subtle grey veining is very popular right now – but need more durability, consider engineered stone.

Engineered Quartz

These white and grey countertops are quartz, but look similar to marble.

Engineered quartz is a popular choice for homeowners because it is easy to clean, it’s nonabsorbent (no sealing needed), can withstand high heat, and is even harder than granite. Quartz counters are manufactured from 93% natural quartz and 7% resign that are blended with pigment to obtain a variety of colors with as little or as much veining as desired. However, from a sustainability perspective, manufacturing the slabs (ground quartz + resin + pigment + heat and poured into a slab-shaped mold) takes a big toll. Combined with mining and transporting the quartz, there’s a much larger environmental impact than natural stone. Tova Greenberg, steveworks Co-Owner and in-house Design Manager, says “There’s lots of embodied energy in quartz. Plus, it goes out of style and is replaced more often than we would like. We work with homeowners to choose carefully and not to pick something too trendy. The best way to be sustainably minded when it comes to countertop is to choose one that you’ll love for a long time.”

Wood

Tried and true, wood has been used as a countertop material for centuries. Butcherblock, made of strips of hardwood (including maple, teak, birch or walnut) that are bonded together, is a great countertop material which is durable and the only material that’s actually safe to cut on. (Caveat: while you CAN cut on it – it’s essentially a giant cutting board – we wouldn’t recommend it unless you’re committed to sanding refinishing it every couple of years.)

Wood does require some maintenance and needs to be oiled periodically, but we like that any scratches or knicks can be buffed out. When choosing wood it’s important to remember that it is porous and needs to be sealed – and the seam around the sink properly caulked – to avoid water damage. As a result, some homeowners choose to use butcherblock as an accent on the kitchen island or, as the homeowners above, as a built-in dining area.

Recycled Paper

Richlite manufactures gorgeous PAPER countertops which we used in this kitchen project.

Seriously? Paper countertops? YES! We have to admit that we’re really excited to use Richlite on an upcoming project. Using responsibly harvested trees combined with recycled materials (some of their counters are completely made with recycled paper), the team at Richlite infuses its counters with resin to create beautiful countertops that are durable and easy to work with. In fact, it cuts and shapes just like wood. It also has a leathery texture and a “mottled” appearance that we like.

Richlite also offers some cool options for different countertop edges and various colors.

Recycled Glass

We used recycled glass on this bathroom vanity.

Crushed or recycled glass countertops are gaining popularity. They are usually made from about 80% (or more) recycled glass that has been combined with resin or concrete to make a strong, ecofriendly counter. Because the glass is recycled, there’s a wide range of colors to choose from. However, if a lot of weight is placed on a corner, it’s also possible for the material to crack. As a result, recycled glass is best for bathrooms rather than high traffic kitchens.

Other Options: Concrete, Stainless Steel, Ceramic Tile

We’ve covered some of the most popular choices but are many other choices of countertop material to choose from depending on what style the homeowners hope to achieve. They include:

  • Concrete – This is never our top choice. Concrete is made from sand and gravel (no problem with sustainability for those), but it’s mixed with Portland cement which produces a lot of CO2 emissions when it’s manufactured. While concrete can be poured into interesting shapes, it is very porous and needs to be sealed properly.
  • Stainless Steel – From a design perspective, stainless steel can be attractive on kitchen islands as an accent, but it can dent and scratch easily. It’s produced from steel, chromium and nickel and can be recycled. Care must be taken to match steel color with other stainless products such as refrigerators and dishwashers as there is a surprising range of stainless steel finishes.
  • Ceramic Tile – This used to be a popular choice, but the uneven surface doesn’t make an ideal countertop material. Plus who wants to clean that much grout? It takes a lot of energy to produce ceramic tile. Our view: use it on a backsplash rather than a counter.

THE BOTTOM LINE

We recognize that most homeowners are going to choose natural or engineered stone for their countertops even though wood, glass and paper may be more sustainable. There is a lot of embodied energy in mining, manufacturing, shipping and installing any kind of stone product. Our best advice in that case is to choose a countertop that isn’t too trendy and that you will like for a long time. Perhaps save a bolder choice for your backsplash or paint color.

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