The Healthy Abode: Countertops by Melanie Holden

So, you’re in the market for a new countertop, and you want something that is earth-friendly, durable, sanitary, low-maintenance, gorgeous, and won’t break the bank. Where to begin and how in the world can an eco-countertop boast all of these features? Let’s talk.

First, to appreciate what makes a countertop sustainable, it’s essential to understand the meaning of sustainability. According to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, sustainability is “a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged.” My two cents – a sustainable product should last pretty much forever, but can be easily reborn, redistributed or repurposed when necessary. You sometimes may pay a little more up front for sustainability, but will undoubtedly end up saving in the long run.

Sustainability is about the “big picture.” It’s not just about “going green” – whatever that means. A truly sustainable product is defined by its content; long-term availability; the manufacturing process; how it’s transported, how far, and by whom. The safety and well-being of workers producing the product is imperative, as well as what happens to the product when its lifetime is over.

Ok, so now that we’re on the same page, back to countertops. Probably the first types of countertops that come to mind are inexpensive Laminate, Corian, and of course, the overdone Granite. Laminate is a thin plastic material that requires a base underlayment (all too often, formaldehyde-emitting particleboard) and is attached to this underlayment with sometimes toxic adhesives. If choosing laminate, look for one with recycled plastic, non-toxic glues, and formaldehyde-free substrate. Due to its pretroleum base, Corian and other acrylic composite countertops are very poor environmental choices – check those off the list. Granite countertops, though beautiful and durable, are not a sustainable choice due to the ecological damage incurred by quarrying practices, and the enormous amounts of energy and pollution produced when shipping this heavy material halfway across the globe. Not to mention the chance of bringing the dangerous carcinogen, radon (among other types of radiation) into your household, emitting from the stone itself. Yikes!

So, let’s first examine concrete as a countertop material. Concrete is durable, local, has low VOC’s (volatile organic compounds, which we will discuss in future posts), can be recycled, and is composed of recycled content. It’s extremely versatile, completely customizable, can be any color of the rainbow, and can boast added character when made in conjunction with recycled glass and other materials. It’s easily cleaned with mild soap and water, and you’ll want to periodically seal the surface. Lucky for us St. Louisans, we have a fabulous local concrete resource, CK Concrete Designs.

concrete countertop samples

Here is an sampling of their color palette.

PaperStone is another interesting option, consisting of 100% post-consumer recycled paper fiber and a non-petroleum nut resin. Who knew how durable paper could be! It is a non-porous surface that is heat-resistant to 350 degrees, plus resistant to scratches and stains. It’s warm to the touch, and has a slight “yield” that prevents glass objects from breaking when dropped or set down too hard. PaperStone comes in a variety of shades, and is comparable in price to some granite or quartz surfaces. A regular application of PaperStone Finish, a natural wax and food grade mineral oil, is recommended for protection against intense heat and moisture, and defends against harmful UV rays that can alter the color.

paperstone countertop

PaperStone countertop display at Solid Surface Resources

paperstone color palette

A view of their color palette.

A truly stunning earth-friendly option is Eco by Constantino. This product is comprised of 75% recycled glass, mirror, and porcelain, and is bound by a corn oil based resin. A completely non-porous material, Eco does not require sealing, and it is nearly impossible to scratch, scorch or stain. Primary maintenance includes simply wiping down with a mild soap and water mixture. The only precaution with this product is that you will dull your knives when cutting directly on the countertop’s surface. Oh, and don’t use products like Draino or floor strippers on it…This, as of many of these products, can be found i St. Louis at Solid Surface Resources.

Still haven’t found what you’re looking for? How about a countertop with 80%-95% post-consumer recycled glass like Vetrazzo, IceStone or Enviroglas? Using glass from reclaimed bottles, dinnerware, construction demolition, even traffic light lenses, and other hard-to-recycle types of glass, these countertops each have their own unique history. Maintenance includes cleaning with warm, soapy water, and regular sealing to prevent against staining. They are as durable as granite and less porous than marble – and comparable in price to both.

ice stone color palette

IceStone Color Range on display at Solid Surface Resources

Natural Quartz sufaces like Cambria, Caesarstone, and Silestone are eco-friendly as well. This material is completely non-porous and non-absorbant and you will never have to seal it, as well as most other natural countertops. Quartz surfaces are stronger than granite, radon-free, and have no impact on indoor air quality – which means no VOC’s. There are countless color options, in both solids and multi-colored varieties. Quartz is incredibly heat resistant, and also hard enough to dull your knife if you failt to use a cutting board.

Bamboo countertops are another option that I must mention, but buyer BEWARE. Though it is a popular renewable resource because it regenerates approximately every seven years, you must be extemely vigilant of the source when selecting a bamboo product. The harvesting practices are not always as sustainable as you may believe. Some bamboo is harvested too early, resulting in a very softened product that is not very durable. On top of that, some countries are actually deforesting their native trees to make way for bamboo forests! Not to mention that so much bamboo comes from the other side of the world and is shipped across the ocean in polluting freight vessels, consuming enormous amounts of gasoline and energy. In some cases, bamboo forests are being harvested by private owners who are endangering the lives of animals that are dependent on these plants for survival. For example, the Bamboo Lemur of Madagascar is just one animal that was named on the recent world report of endangered animals – 90% of their diet comes from bamboo. If considering a wood or bamboo countertop, pleas make sure to use an FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) Certified product, like Plyboo, so you are asured that it comes from a source that employs responsible forest management, and preferably locally..

Stainless steel countertops, when made from a good quality stainless steel (the lower grade, the better) is long-lasting, hygienic, durable and low-maintenance. It is completely recyclable and on average is made from 75% recycled stainless steel crap metal. There is also a recycled ceramic tile as a countertop alternative, but make sure you seal that grout! There are quite a few other environmentally friendly countertops, but I would never finish this blog if I went into details for each and every one of them. Of course, you could also find the ultitmate sustainable countertop by paying a visit to your local architectural salvage dealer to see what treasures they may have to offer.

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2 Comments.

  1. Thanks for your kinds words. Back when I wrote this article, I was assured by a Cambria rep that their product does not emit radon, but your comment prompted me to revisit this claim. In a study sponsored by Cosentino, who owns Silestone and manufacturers other natural stone, it was confirmed that there is “little to no” measurable radon emitted from quartz. Although both quartz and granite surfaces contain uranium and thorium (which decay to radon gas), quartz composites are much less porous than granite surfaces so radon gas may not be readily released from quartz countertops. Granted, a single study is not definitive, but it does suggest that radon from quartz countertops is insignificant. Another note is that most quartz countertops are GREENGUARD certified by a 3rd party. This means that quartz will not negatively affect indoor air quality and that it is a low emitting material. So, I am amending my above “radon-free” statement to something more like “quartz countertops may contain trace amounts of radon, but very little, if any of the gas is actually emitted into the air”. Hope that helps a bit!

  2. I want to thank you for this informative and clear, concise article. I have been searching and searching for info on countertops that were safe and not a health hazard. I was interested in Caesar Stone and could not find whether it emits radon like Granite. I’m happy to see that you state here that it does not. You are sure it’s Radon free?? I have read that it does contain radon