Your counters are the hardest-working surface in your home. Here’s how to choose the best sustainable kitchen countertops for your family.
3form makes countertops from 100 percent recycled plastic in a facility on track to be carbon neutral by 2017. (3-form.com)
Photo Courtesy 3form
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.
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.
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.
Recycled aggregate: Recycled aggregate countertops are meant to resemble granite or marble but are typically made from recycled glass, stone, cement and other reclaimed materials bound together with resin. In the past several years, recycled aggregate countertop manufacturers have begun to engineer a wide variety of colors and styles that are comparable to granite and marble, are quite durable, and can handle high heat. Eco by Cosentino is made up of 75 percent recycled materials such as porcelain, mirror and glass and 25 percent natural materials such as corn and stone scraps. It’s all bound together with an eco-resin. Available at Lowe’s, The Home Depot and other authorized dealers, Eco by Cosentino ranges in price from $68 to $118 a square foot. Brooklyn-based IceStone offers beautiful 100 percent recycled glass, Cradle-to-Cradle gold-certified countertop products colored with natural pigments. Although they are quite durable, IceStone products must be sealed and waxed upon installation and every six months after; they must be installed by certified fabricators; and prices range from $90 to $120 a square foot. Oregon-based Fuez and California-based Caesarstone also offer a collection of recycled glass countertops that may strike your fancy.
If you’re the kind of hands-on person who wants to do it yourself, there are countertop options out there for you. Concrete countertops are a sleek, durable option. Installing concrete countertops yourself is not simple, but you can find online tutorials or take a hands-on class if you are up for the challenge. While there is definitely skill required, the cost to form these counters yourself is fairly inexpensive. Find information on the tools and skills you’ll need, plus links to available classes at Concrete Network.
You may find concrete with fly ash added touted as a more sustainable material. While adding fly ash to concrete does make it more sustainable (because fly ash is a waste material from the coal-burning industry), there have been concerns that fly ash could release radon, a dangerous gas, into home interiors. A recent study conducted at the University of Texas at Austin concluded that, “overall...there is a small, but increased chance of having elevated levels of indoor radioactive pollution from fly ash concretes compared to ordinary concretes...The generally small increased dose associated with fly ash suggests minimal population health effects...However, given the uncertainty of the literature and the serious health effects of radon exposure, the influence of fly ash on radioactive pollution indoors deserves further exploration.” Read more online at ScienceDirect.
Another quick, beautiful and relatively easy DIY option is to tile your counters, just as you would a floor or shower. Check out Fireclay Tile’s recycled glass Debris Series; for countertops, it’s best to choose large tiles to reduce the amount of texture and grout (and hence, grout cleaning) on your countertop. Finally, Paperstone offers a DIY option that allows customers to order recycled paper and bio-resin panels and cut them themselves for about $60 a square foot.
Bridgette Meinhold is the Architecture Editor at Inhabitat.com and a freelance writer based in Park City, Utah. When she’s not writing about green design and sustainable architecture, she’s painting in her reclaimed shipping container art studio in the woods.
Although a few countertop manufacturers will sell direct to consumers, most manufacturers sell their products through authorized agents and distributors. Check out manufacturers’ websites for details and to locate the dealer nearest you. One case in which you may want to contact the manufacturer directly is to inquire about “seconds.” If you love a certain product, but the prices are out of your range, ask the manufacturer if they offer discounted “seconds”—slightly damaged material that doesn’t meet specifications to sell new but is still functional. This is a great way to get materials on the cheap, but they may not be perfect. When it comes to installation, while we’d love to say any handy person can install countertops, it’s best to hire an installer unless you are a professional builder. When it comes to the most hardworking surface in your house, you’ll want to make sure it’s installed correctly. Manufacturers and retailers can suggest installers in your region.
bio-resin and recycled content surfaces
information on DIY concrete countertops
Eco by Cosentino
recycled paper and bamboo with bio-resin
sustainable ceramic and recycled glass tiles
recycled glass, cement and fly ash
recycled glass and cement
recycled paper and bio-resin direct to consumer
traditional, strand and butcher block bamboo
post-agricultural and post-industrial bio-resin surfaces
FSC-certified and reclaimed wood
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