When weighing the pros and cons of different countertop materials, remember that your countertop’s environmental impact begins long before it is installed in your kitchen or bathroom and will continue after you dispose of it. Here is a basic rundown of key considerations:
- Raw materials: Are the materials used to create the countertop renewable or finite, and can they come from recycled products? Are they mined or harvested, and if so, how well managed are these processes? For example, mining the metals to produce stainless steel is very energy intensive and in some cases highly polluting, but stainless can be easily recycled. To go a step further, using salvaged material is often best for the environment since it avoids even the energy necessary to recycle.
- Manufacture: Materials that require less processing use less energy, and so have less impact. Ceramic tiles must be fired twice, consuming great amounts of energy, while untreated wood only has to be sawed and planed, using far less.
- Transport: The distance a material travels translates directly into air pollution from vehicle fuel combustion, which is responsible for emissions of sulfur and nitrous oxides, particulate matter, and carbon monoxide. Local materials from within a 500-mile radius are always preferable to reduce air pollution, since emissions can lead to acid rain, ground-level ozone formation, increased asthma rates, and breathing difficulty, according to the U.S. EPA.
- Installation: Dust from sawing and grinding as well as VOCs and other chemicals from adhesives can make your home inhospitable during and after installation. Check with your installer to minimize these impacts.
- Use and maintenance: In place, materials may offgas formaldehyde, VOCs, or other chemicals, but selecting specific materials with low impacts on air quality will cut emissions. For example, look for laminates without formaldehyde in their particleboard backing. Durability is also a major factor, directly linked to a material’s lifespan and how often it must be replaced. Laminates are not very durable, but can last 20 years with conscientious care. Using low-impact cleaning materials will ensure that this care is not at the expense of your indoor air quality.
- End of life: Where will your countertop end up when its life is over? Can it be recycled, reconditioned and reused, downcycled into other products, or will it simply be sent to a landfill? Making your unwanted materials available for other uses helps avoid the extraction impacts of mining and keeps harmful chemicals out of the environment. For example, crushing concrete for use as aggregate in new concrete avoids mining of more aggregate.
When choosing a countertop material, keep in mind that “being green is not a black-and-white issue. All products have some green and some not-so-green characteristics. There is no material with zero impact on our planet,” says architect Eric Corey Freed.