The most often remodeled and most used rooms in our homes are the kitchen and the bathrooms. The choice of countertop materials plays a big part in the overall look of these rooms, the amount of effort it will take for ongoing maintenance, and in the cost of construction. When you throw in the concern for sustainability, and a desire to be green, it becomes even more confusing, especially if you are trying to balance all of these concerns.
In the last ten years or so, there have been many new "environmentally friendly" countertop products introduced on the market, among them ShetkaStone, Lithistone, Squak Mountain Stone, IceStone, and Vetrazzo. The challenge of how to rate the sustainability claims of these products raises the question, yet again, as to what makes a product "green."
What really makes a countertop product green?
Often we think first about whether the material is made from recycled or renewable materials, but there are considerations beyond this, too.
ShetkaStone is made from 100% recycled paper, plant or cloth fibers. Unlike other processors that recycle paper, ShetkaStone is made from any and all types of paper, from waxed paper to glossy paper, including magazines and telephone books. Added to this, all the byproducts or waste from manufacturing can be recycled back into the manufacturing process. The end product itself can also be recycled to become new ShetkaStone. What this means is that the product has a 100% sustainable lifecycle -- pretty impressive!
The material is homogeneous in appearance and comes in several colors. A nontoxic, low-VOC finish is applied to the surface during the manufacturing process. ShetkaStone is durable, scratch-resistant, stain-resistant, water-resistant, and fire-rated. (Putting a hot pan directly on the countertop surface is not recommended.)
The appearance of the finished material does take on characteristics of the paper products in its composition -- in my opinion, you would not mistake it for stone or concrete, though it does have an interesting appearance, and the look would work in certain kitchen or bathroom designs.
Is it the look you want?
If you want the look of concrete or cast stone, Lithistone may be a better green choice. Lithistone is an environmentally friendly, nontoxic cast stone countertop material that can be used in place of concrete or natural stone.
Lithistone products all contain a certain percentage of recycled content. The innovative mix designs all incorporate the eco-ceramic-cement binder, which contains recycled fly ash and, in many cases, recycled glass.
Lithistone also has low embodied energy. All products have an embodied energy factor. It's a measurement, typically in British Thermal Units (BTUs), that accounts for all of the energy needed to create a product from its natural state through production, transportation, and installation. Portland cement typically used in concrete products has a very high embodied energy factor. Instead of Portland cement, Lithistone uses a highly engineered eco-ceramic-cement binder that contains recycled materials, thus substantially lowering the embodied energy factor.
The mineral combinations in Lithistone create an end product that has an electromagnetically balanced chemical structure. The material has what's called "magnetic breathability" andit actually absorbs CO2during its life.
As for durability and maintenance, all Lithistone products are factory sealed with a deep-penetrating sealer during the fabrication process. Before the products are shipped or installed, a clear carnauba wax is applied in two generous applications, and buffed to a satin sheen. It is recommended to continue waxing Lithistone every two months to maintain the natural luster. Spills need to be wiped up to prevent staining and acid etching of the surface. These are all important factors when analyzing and rating the sustainability of countertop materials.
Squak Mountain Stone
Like Lithistone, Squak Mountain Stone has the appearance of concrete or cast stone.
Squak Mountain Stone is a fibrous-cement material composed of recycled paper, recycled glass, and low-carbon cement. The material is hand-cast into slabs as an alternative to natural or quarried stone. It resembles soapstone or limestone, and has an "organic" or natural appearance.
Maintaining Squak Mountain Stone is similar to maintaining Lithistone. I love the look of this material, but do not recommend it to homeowners who need to have everything perfect and pristine, all the time.
Like with limestone and marble, Squak Mountain Stone develops a natural patina over time, which by some may be perceived as a problem. The edges of this material have voids and pits, and if something heavy and/or sharp is dropped on the surface, the resulting "ding" or chip becomes part of the character of the surface -- it cannot be repaired. You have to be able to live with this and enjoy the inherent beauty of this material.
There is a great blog at http://coolcounters.wordpress.com that can help answer questions about Squak Mountain Stone.
Setting the bar with sustainability
Another concrete/recycled glass countertop product is IceStone. This countertop material is one of the most popular and well known of the sustainable countertop options.
IceStone is the first and only durable surface in the world to receive McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC)'s coveted Cradle to Cradle certification. Cradle to Cradle assesses products on a number of criteria, such as the use of safe and healthy materials, design for material reuse and recycling, efficient use of energy and water throughout production, and instituting strategies for social responsibility.
IceStone products are manufactured with 100% recycled glass in a cement matrix, diverting hundreds of tons of glass from landfills each year. IceStone also operates out of a renovated, daylit factory in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, creating U.S. green jobs for workers in an eco-friendly, safe, and respectful environment. There are other manufacturers who make countertops similar to IceStone, like Vetrazzo, Enviroglas, and FUEZ.
The greenest products will be locally produced, preferably within 500 miles of your home. By "shopping local," you can substantially reduce the carbon footprint inherent in transporting products from far away. Using locally produced products also supports the local economy and ensures the vibrancy and sustainability of the area in which you have chosen to live.
Of the products mentioned here, ShetkaStone is manufactured in Minnesota, Lithistone in Colorado, Squak Mountain Stone in Washington, IceStone in New York, Vetrazzo in the San Francisco Bay Area, Enviroglas in Texas, and FUEZ in Oregon. Search out local options in your area - there's a lot of creativity happening in the countertop world!
And what about the cost of sustainable countertop options?
?Everyone is sensitive about price these days, but we need to look at "cost" in a more values-oriented way. By supporting manufacturers that have invested in the research, certifications, and the production of materials that do not negatively impact the environment, we are putting our dollars toward long-term sustainability and benefiting future generations -- as well as benefiting ourselves in creating spaces that feed our spirit.