When selecting green countertops or any building material, consider basing your selection criteria on a product's life cycle analysis (LCA).
- An LCA reviews the environmental impact of a product from raw material extraction to disposal at the end of its useful life.
- And a LCA considers all steps in between -- including fabrication, distribution, installation, and maintenance - essentially cradle to grave.
High-pressure decorative laminates (HPDLs) such as Formica or Wilsonart are generally comprised of wood fibers (some of which are FSC), paper (virgin and recycled), and resin (a petrochemical product), some of which is domestically sourced.
Two of the three main ingredients are sustainable, while the third is not (++-).
- Because these laminates are high pressure, there is a fair amount of energy that goes into the manufacturing process (-).
- Laminate is rather lightweight compared to its volume, so transporting from Formica's Ohio factory or one of Wilsonart's multiple U.S. factories makes for a relatively small carbon footprint (+).
- Fabricating and installing can now be done with low-VOC adhesives (+).
- Laminate is easy to maintain but ranks somewhat low on the durability quotient because it cannot be easily fixed or refinished if damaged by hot pots or abrupt impacts (-).
- At the end of its useful life, it will get pitched into a landfill, where its ability to decompose is minimal (-).
- I can't quantify what chemicals, if any, will leach from laminates once they hit the landfill or would be emitted into the air if placed in an incinerator.
- Both Formica and Wilsonart are Green Guard certified (+).
Granite and marble
Most granite used for countertops is "mined," or rather, "quarried," in Brazil, China, India, or Italy, while most marble is mined in Canada, China, Germany, India, Italy, Spain, or the U.S.
These natural stones are extracted from the earth at a quarry in large slabs (we will not get into working conditions here).
- The extraction and preliminary fabrication of these natural stone slabs is both water and energy intensive (-).
- Due to the high weight-to-volume ratio, natural stone counters have a high carbon footprint when transported for distribution (-). However, it is important to note that shipping by container across an ocean can be more efficient than shipping by freight truck across the U.S., rendering a potentially smaller relative carbon footprint if the slab is installed close to the port of entry.
- Finish fabrication of each slab is again energy and water-intensive; however, many modern fabrication shops recycle their production water (ask your fabricator how they handle waste water) (+/-).
- After the final polishing step, the slabs are sealed with typically high-VOC sealants, exposing workers to toxic chemicals that also may get into the waste water (-).
- Ask your fabricator if they use a low-VOC sealant such as Meta Crème as their preferred sealant.
- Polished granite (as opposed to honed granite) is relatively easy to maintain; just remember not to set "right out of a 400 degree oven" pans on the counter without a trivet and to wipe up acidic items like wine, vinegar, lemon juice, and onion juice in a timely manner (+).
- Marble, on the other hand, is a bit more high-maintenance and can scratch and stain easily (-).
At the end of its useful life, a granite or marble countertop may have an opportunity to be recycled if removed by an experienced fabricator -- the issue with recycling is finding just the right "new application" for the slab because of limitations on size and cutouts from appliances, sinks, etc. In the event the slab is pitched in a landfill, it will be largely inert with little leaching of toxic substances except possibly the sealant.
There is no third-party environmental certification on natural stone products (-).
When selecting any building material, you have to balance cost, aesthetics, durability, maintenance, and sustainability with your resources and lifestyle.
The cost to install a quality laminate runs $15-$25/sq. ft. in the Pacific Northwest while quality 3-cm granite slabs run approximately $85/sq. ft. installed.
Other countertop options
To learn about some other countertop options, see the following GreenHomeGuide posts:
- "I am wondering what is the most cost-efficient low-VOC or no-VOC countertop option," answered by David Edwards.
- "Has anyone compared the overall carbon footprints of different countertop materials (e.g., mined vs. manufactured stone)?" answered by Gennaro Brooks-Church.
- "What would you recommend as a durable, environmentally responsible, and attractive countertop material that is also reasonably priced?" answered by Victoria Schomer.
In conclusion, don't let the exercise of performing a life cycle analysis on each product you are considering daunt you - someone else has already done the work for you.