Countertops need to be installed on top of a substrate. Start your green efforts by making sure that substrate is made from FSC-certified plywood, wheatboard, or formaldehyde-free MDF rather than particleboard or MDF containing formaldehyde. Environmentally conscious choices for the counters themselves include:
Paper or glass composite countertops may include recycled paper, wood pulp, recycled glass or crushed stone. Examples include PaperStone, Richlite, Vetrazzo and IceStone. Strong and durable, these materials do include resin or epoxy, but they do not offgas.
Concrete has gained popularity thanks to decorative techniques such as staining, coloring, stamping, scoring and sealing that make it customizable and attractive. Highly durable, concrete must be sealed periodically to protect against staining. Cons: The aggregate mixed with the cement and water should be recycled for concrete to count as green.
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Bamboo, a grass that looks like wood and grows rapidly, becomes large enough to harvest in three to six years. Its rapid growth inherently makes it a much sustainable product than most hardwood species. Cons: No third-party organization monitors environmental regulations and worker safety. The resins used to laminate it often contain urea formaldehyde. Avoid near sinks and wet areas.
Stone, especially granite, is a popular, beautiful and durable countertop option. Stone is also a natural material. Most stone counters requiring sealing to protect against staining—be sure to use a low-VOC sealant. Cons: It is not a renewable resource.
Wood is a naturally found material, but beware of harmful logging practices that destroy old growth forests and damage ecosystems. Look for wood with FSC certification, and use low-VOC sealants and water-based finishes. Cons: Other third-party certification standards are not as stringent as FSC. Some species—African teak, Brazilian rosewood and Caribbean mahogany, for example—are endangered. Avoid wood counters near sinks and wet areas.
Stainless Steel often contains a significant amount of recycled steel and doesn't offgas. It is durable but can be scratched and show fingerprints. Cons: Mining and refining steel uses a large amount of energy and pollutes the environment.
Some tile, such as ceramic and glass, can be made with recycled content such as old light bulbs, bottles and porcelain fixtures. Ceramic tile is durable and biodegradable. Use low-VOC adhesives.