Thanks to continual advances in the variety and quality of green building materials, there are more countertop options to choose from than ever before. And as earth-friendly technologies improve, there's really no excuse not to consider the personal and environmental impacts of your choices -- that means the whole lifecycle from manufacture to installation to replacement.
In an ideal, completely green world, all countertop materials would be composed of recyclable materials, free of VOCs, solid and nonporous, stain and scratch resistant, attached by mechanical means rather than adhesives, and completely recyclable. For now, most are a combination of environmental pros and cons, but some traditional environmental offenders are starting to catch up. Here is a rundown of currently available materials as seen through the green screen.
STONE -- It?s beautiful, natural and durable, but not renewable. Mining of any kind affects land and water quality, and the proceeds have what is known in green speak as high embodied energy, encompassing the manufacturing, transportation and labor the typically large, heavy slabs require. The more local and close-to-the-surface your stone selection is, the lower the impact. Sealing keeps out germs and stains, and stone may also be recycled at the end of its life in your kitchen.
SOLID SURFACING -- Easy to keep clean and beautiful, solid surfacing is also beginning to catch up in terms of earth friendliness. You can now find types made from recycled plastics which would?ve otherwise been underfoot in landfills. The end product, however, is not always recyclable.
LAMINATE -- The new green-grade laminates are made of recycled plastic and require formaldehyde-free substrate and nontoxic glues (mechanical fasteners are also an option). They?re stain-resistant and easy to clean, but not recyclable when replaced.
STAINLESS STEEL -- This durable, easy-to-clean material comes in the form of either salvaged metal or a composition of recycled content. Mechanical fasteners mean no chemical-laden adhesives, and stainless steel can be recycled again down the line.
CONCRETE -- This material is high in embodied energy thanks to the transport and mixing of its ingredients of cement, aggregate and water, but there?s no off gassing beyond the sealant that improves its durability, and it can have a second life as crushed aggregate or slab. The main health concern with concrete is dust during its installation.
CERAMIC TILE -- The clay it?s made from is a natural but finite resource, so look for greener versions that incorporate recycled post-consumer content. Some imported tiles may have radioactive or lead-based glazes, but otherwise, ceramic tile has low-to-no VOCs and is said to support indoor air quality. The heavy weight of ceramic tile means high embodied energy via transport costs.
GLASS TILE -- Best used for backsplashes, glass tile can contain up to 100% recycled content, and some manufacturers? processes require less energy than conventional melting (though weight of the final product adds up to reasonably high embodied energy). Like ceramic tile, it?s a supporter of good indoor air quality, and can be recycled into whole new tile styles.
WOOD/BUTCHER BLOCK -- The original countertop material, wood is fading to the background as more sustainable and health-safe alternatives come to the fore. To be green, it must be composed of salvaged, reclaimed or Forest Stewardship Council-certified wood, and if laminated, must be free of added formaldehyde. Sealers and cleaners also have to be low on the VOC emissions scale, and mechanical fastening is preferred. However, wood countertops contain a certain amount of naturally occurring formaldehyde, and even regular cleaning and sealing isn?t guaranteed to keep them from attracting dangerous bacteria. Wood is potentially recyclable in slabs.
TERRAZZO COMPOSITES -- This aggregate of stone and glass chips makes quite a style statement and can contain a high level of recycled content; just be sure to check into the binders used, which may omit VOCs. Terrazzo is highly durable and stain resistant, and available in tile or slab form (both hit high on the embodied energy meter). Has up to a 40-year lifespan, but cannot be recycled.
Note: Tom Kraeutler is the Home Improvement Editor for AOL and host of The Money Pit, a nationally syndicated home improvement radio program. To find a local radio station, download the show's podcast or sign-up for Tom's free weekly e-newsletter, visit the program's Web site.