One of the many decisions I am faced with right now involves the counter tops.. if any of you have ever looked for new counters, you will know that every material has it's positive and negative qualities. Adding sustainability to the mix only increases the confusion. It is my conclusion that there is no truly "green" solution for counters... here is a list of the usual (and some unusual) suspects:
Granite is much loved here in the Okanagan. It is durable and it is a natural material BUT it is porous, requires frequent sealing (which often includes toxic ingredients), is usually quarried halfway around the world, and can be damaged by acidic and alkali substances. Any refinishing must be done by a professional.
Marble has similar qualities to granite, with the additional quality of staining easily. I am OK with a patina developing over time and LOVE the look of marble, but if you want your counter to look the same five years from now as it does today you might want to consider another material. There are some gorgeous marbles available here that are quarried near Duncan, BC which reduces the carbon footprint somewhat.
Tile... Really? Grout on your counters? My inner germophobe is shuddering.
Laminate is inexpensive, but generally speaking the backing material is full of toxic glues. Also, it's not that durable and if damaged needs replaced.
Corian is a plastic composite... it has limitless design possibilities, and is non-porous. It can scorch if it meets extreme heat, and any repairs must be done by a professional. The DuPont website reads like a science report, and to me the chemicals are a little scary.
Stainless Steel has the advantage of being recyclable and extremely durable. It is also a non-porous surface, so is easy to keep clean with no special care. Look for recycled content or reclaimed materials to up the green factor. If you're worried about fingerprints, a brushed finish helps a lot, and the steel will develop a patina over time that will show marks less and less.
Wood counters are warm and timeless.. look for FSC certified wood, or reclaimed wood. Also make sure any glues that are used are low-VOC. Butcher block counters with no added urea-formaldehyde (NAUF) are a good option. Wood counters can be sealed with a variety of healthy products, but they are porous. That means germs and staining. They are however easily sanded down and refinished if it starts looking tired, or if you leave it, a patina will develop over time. You can also choose to cut directly on your counters if it is butcher block, which will either make you happy or horrify you depending on your point of view.
Quartz Composite uses waste stone chips and glass (although sometimes it's as little as 11% if you can believe that). It can also use toxic binders to hold them together. All quartz is not created equally.. check out eco by consentino, and vetrazzo. Keep in mind that the greener it is, the more it will cost you.
Paperstone has some serious eco-cred. It's made of recycled paper fibres and non-toxic resins. You can sand out any scratches yourself, and treat it with any hardwood product. It is non-porous and stain resistant. It has a beautiful soft feel, and the only reason I am not sold on it is that I question the durability for something like a kitchen counter. It seems to scratch very easily, and although the website claims a "beautiful, soft patina" occurs over time, I would think that with no pattern to distract the eye, areas of heavy wear would be glaringly apparent. That said, it is beautiful and has potential for many different uses besides counters.
Concrete is a favorite of mine. The green factor is debatable. Some say concrete is green because Limestone is the most abundant mineral on earth, and it is usually available locally. It is also highly durable (which is one reason why we are using it for our flooring)but is not recyclable if it gets removed. However the carbon footprint is high due to the quarrying process, and toxic sealers are needed when using it as a counter top. Concrete is a hot topic online, here is an example of a site that does not think it's green.
Soapstone is a natural stone like marble or granite, but is has the advantage of being non-porous and inert. It is finished with a mineral oil, and any scratches (because, yes it is soft) can be smoothed out with sandpaper. It is beautiful, easily maintained and durable. It also has an incredible soft feel. The downside is that although there is Canadian soapstone available, it is extremely soft. The majority of soapstone seems to be imported from South America.
Here are some of the options we are considering...
For the Island(s) I am undecided as yet.. maybe wood to keep it light (they will be on casters) and warm (for the kids to sit and craft at). We'll see.. writing this post has inspired me to do a little more research.
Check out this article on the sunset blog for some other new innovations in eco counter tops.. Just remember to check out the binders and sealers that are used for each material, as that is a place where hidden toxins can be, and that info is not always easy to find. As a general rule of thumb, I have found in my research that if a company is not proudly informative about the material used and where it is manufactured, it is because they don't really want you to know... but that's just my opinion.