To earn eco-friendly status, a countertop may be made of natural, renewable materials or composites of natural and/or recycled materials. Composites should incorporate only low-VOC resins and adhesives that are not prone to off-gassing. And because transportation adds to the carbon footprint and the cost of materials, proximity of the source of materials and the factory to the end user is an important consideration.
To make sure your choice is truly eco-friendly, you may want to look for various certifications. Scientific Certification Systems (SCS) is a global leader in third-party environmental auditing and testing. Likewise, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) maintains a chain of custody between responsible forest-product production and consumption, helping to ensure that products advertised as “green” are not misrepresented. And the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) provides LEED certification, awarding points or credits for the “greenness” of building materials and products.
As you start your research, you’ll notice two broad categories: countertops that are made of natural or renewable materials and those that are made of recycled, post-consumer or post-industrial waste. (There is some overlap between the two.) This article focuses on materials designated natural or renewable.
The material of choice for many DIYers, wood has proven its reliability, sustainability and beauty for thousands of years. The butcher-block top on my portable dishwasher is proof that wood lasts: It has provided a work surface for kneading bread and rolling out piecrusts for almost 20 years.
Wood (about $30 to $100 a square foot for butcher block) does get cut and stained fairly easily, but occasional sanding and oiling with a food-grade mineral oil will keep it looking good as it ages. To create a less porous surface you can apply polyurethane; it will become scratched and burned easily, but you can protect it by using cutting boards and hot pads. Some people worry that wood’s porosity will make it prone to bacterial contamination, but wood has natural antiseptic qualities and can be kept bacteria-free by simply wiping it with a bleach/water solution.
What’s greener than something made from dirt — or at least clay? Tile is tough and long-lasting, but it can chip and crack when dinged with pots and pans, and glassware dropped on it tends to fare poorly. The grout can be difficult to keep clean, especially if the lines are wide and poorly sealed, but tile itself is easy to clean. It’s available in thousands of colors, textures, shapes and sizes, and it’s inexpensive (about $10 to $30 a square foot). It also ranks high on the DIY scale: Anyone with appropriate skills and tools can create a professional-looking tile countertop relatively quickly.
Tile is one of the most DIY-friendly countertop materials available, and it offers custom color and design opportunities.
Although granite is one of today’s most desired countertop materials, it is more porous than quartzite alternatives such as Silestone, Cambria and CaesarStone, which are composites of stone and resin. Granite has a more natural appearance, as it’s simply cut and shaped from its raw form, whereas quartzite products come in an almost limitless variety of styles and colors. This is a case where proximity may narrow your choices; for example, CaesarStone is made exclusively in Israel, so shipping detracts from its green score. However, the product has secured all of the aforementioned eco-friendly certifications and is also kosher-certified.
CaesarStone, a composite material made of stone and resin, is available in a countless variety of colors and textures.
Because of granite’s porosity, you have to periodically seal it; quartzite doesn’t need sealing. Both are fairly comparable in price (about $50 to $100 a square foot, and sometimes more), but they will last practically forever and are resistant to heat and scratching.
Granite countertops are naturally durable and feature one-of-a-kind patterns and color combinations.
Reaching a harvestable height of 60 ft. in just three to five years, bamboo is one of the fastest-growing green products in the world — both literally and in terms of popularity. It is 100 percent renewable, it doesn’t require replanting (it regenerates from an extensive root network), and it can be raised and harvested without the use of pesticides, fertilizers or irrigation.
Totally Bamboo’s countertops consist of layers of thin stranding held together with resin. Different grain patterns are available.
As a building material, bamboo is 16 percent harder than maple and one-third lighter in weight than oak. Its coloring comes from the natural sugars within the plant, which caramelize when steamed. The longer the material is steamed, the darker the color. Because the color extends throughout the material, it won’t fade or alter when sanded.
A bamboo countertop consists of many layers of thin stranding held together with resin. It can be cut, drilled, routed and finished in the same way as fine-grain wood. It’s also subject to some of the same problems: staining, burning and showing cuts and scratches.
Costs for bamboo start at about $25 to $30 a square foot. Countertop manufacturer Totally Bamboo (which points out that the type of bamboo it harvests, Moso timber, is neither a food source nor habitat for the endangered giant panda) also makes 1-1/2 x 1-1/2 x 96-in. edging for about $4 a foot.
Other Plant-Base Materials
Products such as Durapalm, Kirei Board and Nuxite make use of discarded or unused plant materials suspended in formaldehyde-free, zero-VOC resin. Durapalm employs wood from old non-fruiting palm trees. Though it’s not a DIY product (requiring specification through a designer), it’s certainly a green option. Costs range from $240 to $510 for a 3x6-ft. or 3x8-ft. panel. Kirei Board is made of reclaimed stocks of the sorghum plant, a drought-tolerant species grown worldwide that is the planet’s fifth-largest cereal grain — so Kirei Board makes use of an ample supply of what would otherwise be waste. And it’s budget-friendly, starting at about $7 a square foot.
Durapalm, made of wood from non-fruiting palm trees, makes use of a material that would otherwise be waste.
Nuxite is made of discarded walnut shells. Natural Built Home, a Minneapolis-based company that sells the product, states that it can be cut and shaped using woodworking tools and techniques. It comes sanded to a 150-grit finish on the display side; after fabrication it needs to be further sanded and finished with Bioshield Herbal Oil #2, beeswax, carnuba-base finishes or mineral oil to develop a deep, lustrous tone. The manufacturer also provides a walnut-shell powder and instructions for filling small holes or imperfections in the slab. Nuxite starts at about $60 a square foot.
Nuxite repurposes discarded walnut shells, transforming them into a unique countertop material that’s similar to wood.
You might be surprised to learn that linoleum, a common flooring product invented in 1860 and made popular during the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, is now being used for countertops. Marmoleum, one of the largest and most recognizable brands, is made of renewable materials such as linseed oil, wood flour, pigments, rosins and jute. It is nontoxic and completely biodegradable and does not offgas. (Marmoleum is also nonallergenic, having earned Asthma and Allergy Friendly certification, and has no adverse health effects during its manufacture, life or disposal.) Like most natural countertop products, linoleum will show cuts and burns, but because the color extends throughout the product, minor cuts and scratches are barely noticeable.
Linoleum is a tried-and-true natural flooring material that’s making its way onto countertop surfaces.
Linoleum is about 2.5mm thick and available in sheets, glue-down tiles and click-together planks and tiles. It can be purchased in more than 100 colors and with rounded edges (or the countertop can be edged by the installer). Linoleum sheeting starts at about $35 a square yard.
Blog posts of DIYers who have installed linoleum countertops report that wood veneer, wood trim and metal banding make good edging materials. The bloggers said it was a fairly easy material to work with, and they were pleased with the look and feel of the finished product.
DIYers interested in green building will want to use less-toxic caulks and epoxies when installing countertops. Eco-Bond’s Multi-Purpose MP 25 and HD150 are low-VOC caulks that can be painted. Titebond’s Greenchoice Heavy Duty Construction Adhesive is another all-purpose caulk that is VOC-compliant, containing no ozone-depleting chemicals. Two epoxies that are solvent-free and suited for natural stone products are BM70 Glue by Glax and Epoxy Gel G A+B from Tenax USA.
Although the countertop products we’ve described here are by no means the only ones available, they provide a starting point for research. Don’t rely solely on a manufacturer’s information, as essential as it is. Take time to read blog posts about various materials and see what real people think of them. Once you’ve done your homework, enjoy your new green countertop, whatever color it may be.