Eco-Friendly Countertops: Finding the Perfect Surface
By Lori Tobias
Eco-friendly countertop options are numerous–and every bit as functional, durable and aesthetically pleasing as the old standbys. Healthier for the home and for the earth, these surfaces are often made from recycled content or manufacturing byproducts previously considered waste.
Sorghum is a grass used primarily for food products. In the past, sorghum stalks were burned after the seeds were removed. Today, manufacturers compress the stalks with a nontoxic adhesive, resulting in a unique striped effect. The surface comes in only one color, but it can be stained.
Pros: attractive; easy to care for; durable; reclaimed material; wood substitute
Cons: shrinks and swells when wet; requires expert installation, sealing and regular resealing; available in only one color (but can be stained)
Sunflower seed hulls
The hard, thick shells of sunflower seeds–often removed in the factory and thrown in the trash–are processed with a nontoxic adhesive for a countertop that resembles granite.
Pros: attractive; easy to care for; durable; granite look; reclaimed material; wood substitute
Cons: shrinks and swells when wet; requires expert installation, sealing and regular resealing; limited colors
After the edible portion is harvested, wheat stalks are mixed with a nontoxic adhesive and pressed into boards. A more attractive alternative to medium density fiberboard, wheatboard is more fragile than other post-agricultural products and must be sealed correctly so it doesn’t swell, shrink or stain. Its color range is limited, and the cost is generally about 10 to 20 percent above a traditional high-end surface such as granite.
Pros: attractive; easy to care for; reclaimed material and wood substitute; can be stained in variety of colors
Cons: most fragile of post-agricultural materials; shrinks and swells when wet; requires expert installation, sealing and regular resealing
Recycled aluminum countertops
These sleek countertops employ aluminum shavings from post-industrial milling combined with acrylic resin. Available in about a dozen colors and three finishes, the surface is easy to clean. Fabrication takes expert knowledge and a special saw blade.
Pros: available in a variety of colors and finishes; durable; attractive
Cons: requires expert installation; scratches; edges must be sealed to prevent sharpness; color changes when exposed to ultraviolet light
Recycled glass countertops
Shards from reclaimed bottles, set in slabs of poured concrete, make durable terrazzo-like countertops in a wide range of colors. “For people who cook a lot, I recommend darker colors,” says Natalie Freidberg, a green building consultant with All Shades of Green in Los Angeles. Recycled glass countertops are available from several manufacturers–try to find one near your home.
Pros: long track record; attractive; wide range of colors and appearances; manufactured nationwide; durable; requires less frequent resealing
Cons: stains easily; expensive
Bamboo butcher block
Bamboo butcher block, available in light and dark shades, is very durable. It’s important to buy from a manufacturer you trust to source quality bamboo–though it grows quickly and without pesticides or fertilizers, its popularity has led to poor harvesting techniques and the decimation of forests and other agricultural lands to make way for bamboo. The surface is designed to chop on but will likely scratch. It requires specialty installation and special care around sinks because the wood swells and shrinks when wet. Also, while bamboo is readily renewable, it’s not local for most. Ask the manufacturer about adhesives–most use some amount of formaldehyde in the glue.
Pros: very durable; butcher block style designed to chop on
Cons: scratches; swells and shrinks when wet; imported from Asia; binding glue often contains formaldehyde
Recycled paper countertops
Concrete-like paper countertops were designed for commercial kitchens, Freidberg says, so they should wear well. The paper is compressed under high pressure with a phenolic resin that doesn’t outgas. Colors tend to be dark. Periodic finishing with natural oils or waxes is recommended.
Pros: wide variety of looks and colors; aged appearance similar to concrete; durable
Cons: must be sealed well and regularly; generally comes in darker colors, which can be a problem in kitchens with poor light; stains
Recycled plastic countertops
Created by melting recycled plastic into a form, these durable countertops are made from basics we use every day: shampoo bottles, milk jugs, food containers. Most have a white base with colored speckles. About an inch thick and very lightweight, the countertops are easy to install and don’t need to be sealed, but you’ll want to use a cutting board. From a distance, they resemble laminate, but they cost about 20 percent more.
Pros: no sealing required; lightweight; easy to install; durable; variety of colors
Cons: not designed to be cut on
When choosing countertops, color is an important consideration that’s often overlooked, says architect Peter Pfeiffer of Barley & Pfeiffer in Austin, Texas. “We encourage our clients to choose as light a color as possible to enhance lighting in the kitchen,” he says. A brighter kitchen requires less artificial light and lighter surfaces don’t hold heat like darker ones can. “In turn, that reduces electricity consumption and air-conditioning costs. The less light you use, the less electricity you consume and the less heat you consume with your air conditioning.”
Which Eco-Friendly Countertop Is Right for You?
Natalie Freidberg, a green building consultant with All Shades of Green, a sustainable living center in Los Angeles, suggests asking yourself the following questions before you buy any material.
• Where is it made? “You want to find, if possible, things that are sourced and manufactured locally,” Freidberg says.
• How will you use it? Are you willing to use a chopping board or put a drip tray under a bottle of olive oil or red wine?
• Is it potentially toxic? “Make sure it’s nontoxic and not outgassing anything into your home,” Freidberg says. “It doesn’t matter how beautiful it is if it makes you sick.”
Cradle to Cradle
Far too often, old countertops wind up in the landfill. You can avoid that by thinking ahead when you install new countertops, says Debbie Hindman, co-author of Sustainable Residential Interiors (Wiley, 2006) and marketing manager with Associates III in Denver.
“When you order a new countertop, have it installed so it can be easily removed in one piece and salvaged for reuse,” Hindman says. In addition to making your removal more efficient, this allows you to avoid mastics and adhesives, which frequently contain formaldehyde.
• DON’T skip your research when looking into countertop options. Your cooking habits, location and more will help narrow your choices.
• DO think ahead. Install your countertop so it can be easily removed in one piece and salvaged for reuse.
100 percent post-consumer recycled HDPE (plastic) countertops
countertops from reclaimed solid surfaces
bamboo and recycled paper countertops
recycled glass and concrete countertops
agricultural fiber, wheat, bamboo, sorghum and coconut countertops
100 percent post-consumer recycled paper and cardboard surfaces
recycled paper countertops
recycled paper countertops
surfaces made from wheat straw, sunflower seed hulls, recycled wood chips and other fibers
recycled glass countertops
Lori Tobias, a regular Natural Home & Garden contributor and a staff writer for The Oregonian, lives on the Oregon coast with her husband, Chan, and their three dogs.
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