Sustainable Kitchen Countertops for Your Home

Your counters are the hardest-working surface in your home. Here’s how to choose the best sustainable kitchen countertops for your family.

| September/October 2012

From cooking dinner to art projects, homework sessions, tomato canning, bake sale prepping and entertaining, your kitchen counters have to manage it all. They need to stand up to high heat, spills, knives, heavy bags and children. Oh, and would it be too much to ask if they cleaned up easily and didn’t require any maintenance either? If your kitchen counters aren’t holding up under the rigorous demands of your household, it might be time for an upgrade. Likewise, if you’re building or remodeling your kitchen, choosing the right eco-friendly counters should be a priority. Either way, we’ve got you covered with a slew of great options for beautiful, healthy and sustainable kitchen countertops.

The Right Sustainable Kitchen Countertops for Your Family

Because we use our kitchen countertops every single day and they come into contact with nearly all of our food, it’s vital to choose a durable, nontoxic and sustainable material. Countertops aren’t exactly cheap, and any savings you may achieve by choosing a lower-quality material will be wiped out if you have to replace them in a few years because they couldn’t hold up. To protect our health, it’s also vital to choose a material that’s nontoxic and that doesn’t offgas chemicals into the air or leach them into our food. Finally, to reduce your home’s environmental impact, select a product made by a company dedicated to sustainability that sources eco-friendly materials. Choosing a manufacturer located closer to you will reduce the counter’s carbon footprint from travel. If you can find a material that blends durability, health and sustainability at a price you can afford, you’ll be in tip-top shape for a long time.

When selecting a countertop material, start by considering your family, your lifestyle and all of the activities that go on in Command Central (aka your kitchen). Do you have small children, cook for a large family, or use your counters for a variety of projects? If so, you’ll want to prioritize durability and choose a material that will clean up in a snap. On the other hand, if your family is small, you entertain only occasionally, or you don’t spend as much time in your kitchen, you might not need such a hardy, handle-it-all material. Regardless, be sure to read the product guides about maintenance and care. Some counters need to be oiled or polished from time to time, and others may not handle hot pans being set on them, harsh cleaners or even overexposure to UV from the sun. These factors will make a huge difference in your long-term satisfaction with your countertop choice.

Sustainable Countertop Options

While eco-friendly countertops come in a variety of materials, they generally fall into three categories: bio-resins/plastics, natural wood products and recycled aggregates. Almost all of them use a binder, glue or resin to hold the materials together. While most companies that offer a responsible product will use nontoxic glues, it’s important to ask what the glue is made of. Many glues contain formaldehyde, which can offgass into your home at room temperature.

Fused bio-resin or plastic: The first category of eco-friendly countertop materials are fused products made with eco-friendly bio-resin or plastic, which sometimes feature recycled paper or even agricultural byproducts. Regardless of the product being fused—which could range from paper to wheat hulls—bio-resins are used to sandwich and adhere materials together to form a solid, impervious surface. KlipTech in Washington offers a product called EcoTop, which is made up of a 50/50 paper and bamboo blend held together with bio-resins. Available in UV-resistant Snow, White, Ivory, Espresso or Jet Black, EcoTop ranges from $28 to $33 a square foot. TorZo in Oregon produces a stunning resin-formed countertop made from post-agricultural and post-industrial natural materials such as sunflower hulls, wheat, hemp and wood fibers. The counters must be installed through authorized agents and range in price from $25 to $85 a square foot. Salt Lake City-based 3form has long been known for making resin panels, but the company also produces countertops made of recycled plastic. We recommend 100 Percent, which is free of both phthalates and bisphenol-A (BPA) and is Greenguard Children & Schools Indoor Air Quality-certified. It’s made from 100 percent post-consumer recycled content and comes in stripes, a blend or solid colors, starting at $12 a square foot.

Sustainable wood: Natural wood counters may be made from sustainably harvested wood, reclaimed or salvaged woods, or sustainably harvested bamboo. Wood counters lend kitchens an organic, warm and inviting feel. Unless you’re going for salvaged wood, look for products that are Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified to ensure the wood was harvested sustainably. Prices for responsibly sourced wood countertops vary widely. Teragren in Washington makes a slab product from rapidly renewable Moso bamboo that’s available in a vertical, strand or parquet arrangement. Ranging from $22 to $30 a square foot from an authorized dealer, these bamboo countertops are a beautiful and affordable option, but they need to be oiled regularly to prevent them from drying out. Plyboo by Smith & Fong in San Francisco offers a bamboo plywood countertop material that’s made with a soy-based, 100 percent urea formaldehyde- free adhesive and starts at just under $7 a square foot. Windfall Lumber in Washington sources FSC-certified and reclaimed woods for its gorgeous wood counters. The company offers a variety of materials ranging from $40 to $125 a square foot. They’re all so lovely, you’ll likely have a hard time deciding which is your favorite.

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