Starting From the Top
Installing new countertops is a functional and attractive way to update your kitchen or bath. Recently, granite has been the surface everyone wants, while tile has always been a timeless option; however, there are many new and exciting countertop products to consider, and many are made from recycled and/or sustainable materials.
To help you find the countertop that is right for your use and space, consider style, function, and your budget. What "look" and feel do you want in the room? What material/color would complement your existing or remodeled decor? How durable does the product need to be for your planned uses? What are you willing to spend on beautiful, durable, sustainably-made counters?
Alternative Countertop Materials
The availability of high quality, sustainable countertop products continues to grow as innovative minds find more and more ways to incorporate recycled and/or renewable materials into slabs and tile. Counters made from recycled ceramic, plastic, glass and waste paper are just a few of the options for surfaces based on reused materials. Other "green" countertops, but not necessarily containing recycled material, include cement (with fly ash), cement/wood pulp mix, and pressed paper. These counters are great alternatives to quarried stone or synthetic surface materials.
Looking for something really unique, beautiful, and custom made? Multi-colored glass chips (glass aggregate) reclaimed from discarded bottles, mirrors, and plate windows cast in an epoxy resin (binder medium) or concrete (depending on manufacturer) create an attractive and durable 21st century terrazzo-like look. These countertops are manufactured using 100% recycled glass, the color pattern and chip size of which you specify based on the selection offered by the manufacturer. The binder color and finish can also be customized with some manufacturers.
The terrazzo slab consists of about 75% recycled glass and 25% binding material and is very comparable to granite and other slab products. These counters are durable (heat, scratch, and stain-resistant!) and require only neutral cleaners and professional grade granite polish to maintain. Installation is also similar to that of granite or marble, so your installer/fabricator should be familiar with working with natural stone. Glass terrazzo slabs cost about $60-75/sf (not including shipping, installation, etc.). Environmental advantages include reusing the glass and keeping it out of landfills, the product does not call for stone quarrying, and it contains no off-gassing VOC's.
Recycled glass is also being used to make countertop tiles. The tiles have up to 100% recycled glass content and one manufacturer reports that they take less than one-half of the energy to produce than ceramic tile and less than one-fourth of the energy required to produce cast-glass tile. Again, this hand-made product is aesthetically beautiful; the subtle variations in color provide uniqueness to the design. They are non-porous and release no pollutants indoors. Four-inch square tiles run about $4-6 each.
Paper countertops? I thought it sounded strange too, but these counters are not only attractive, they also bring a warm and comfortable feel to a room that traditional stone or plastic laminate cannot. This product is made from cellulose fiber treated with a phenolic resin. The cellulose is derived from pulping (the first state in the process of paper manufacturing). While very little recycled paper is used in these counters, wood is a renewable resource and obtained from certified managed forests located within North America. The phenol in the bonding resin is a commonly used compound found in such products as antiseptics, perfumes, and household cleaning agents. During manufacturing, sheets of paper are treated with the resin, pressed, and baked to form very dense, solid sheets of countertop material that are exceptionally strong and durable. The production process generates no hazardous waste and utilizes predominantly renewable resources. Finished counters do not contain off-gassing VOC's.
These pressed paper countertops are available in a variety of rich colors including an amber "baguette," nutmeg, sage, and indigo. The color is completely solid throughout the material, coming from the color of the paper and not a surface treatment. As the counter ages, it patinas and appears softer and deeper in tone. The slabs are resistant to staining, burns and scratching. At installation, it is recommended that your fabricator finish the surface with a non-oil-based sealant. Cleaning and maintenance are basic with periodic use of general countertop cleaners being sufficient to renew the counter's luster. Pricing for this product is in a range similar to stone.
Recycled Aluminum Composite
If you're looking for something on the far end of unique and alternative, perhaps this countertop is for you. Composed of at least 60% post-industrial scrap aluminum set in a "polymetric" resin, these solid slab counters offer a strinkingly beautiful and modern look - this is not your typical counter! An intriguing color palette includes options such as "aegean," "pod," "copper," and "luxor." Finishes can be "textured" or "honed" in matte or gloss. The finished counters are strong, durable, and heat resistant and cost about $70-80/sf.
Aluminum for this product is obtained post-industrial rather than post-consumer because gathering post-consumer aluminum is time and labor intensive. The polymetric resin used to bind the metal scraps together into the counter slab is similar to polyester. Currently, this resin is primarily used in the eyeglass industry, and it is possible in the future that the resin could be obtained from recycled eyeglasses. Once cured in the counter, the resin has not been found to significantly off-gas into the environment.
Why Choose an Alternative Countertop
Whether you want to make a difference for the environment, are concerned about your home's indoor air quality, or are looking for a countertop that offers a beautifying uniqueness to your living space (or all three reasons!) as you carry out your remodeling project, choosing a greener alternative could be for you. These counters are just as hard, durable, and damage resistant as "traditional" materials. Unlike petroleum-based solid laminates, these counters do not off-gas VOC's into your home. They utilize sustainable or recycled materials and therefore do not quire further rock quarrying, and they reduce the waste stream. Care and maintenance are similar and easy.
While this article does not specifically identify the various manufacturers of these alternative countertops, they are easy to locate on the web by doing some quick searches. Additionally, Eco Design Resources at www.ecodesignresources.com, a local business focused on sustainable home improvement products, can also provide information on sustainable countertop products (and much more). If you would like to view some hands-on samples of the counters discussed in this article, please contact me at Town Hall at (650) 851-1700 ex. 11.
If you have a green building topic you would like explored further in an article on this web page, please feel free to provide me with your suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org or via telephone.