Housewatch: How to pick the most environmentally friendly countertops

A plastic laminate countertop can look a lot like granite.
A plastic laminate countertop can look a lot like granite. (Wilsonart)
By Katherine Salant
Saturday, November 21, 2009

Want the greenest countertop on the market? You're going to have to do a bit of research.

We have green and greener countertops, but we won't officially have a greenest until a third-party certifying organization makes a life-cycle analysis of the many countertop materials now available.

This would require many patient souls spending hundreds of hours plowing through reams of highly detailed information, including things that many manufacturers today consider to be proprietary and won't divulge.

For now, conscientious consumers will have to rely on a checklist of factors and make their own determination, while keeping in mind that every countertop material "has its plusses and its not-so-green side," says interior designer and green building expert Victoria Schomer of Asheville, N.C.

What things should homeowners consider?

-- The raw materials used. Renewable is better than non-renewable. Recycled renewable is even better. And "post-consumer" recycled renewable is the best because this type of waste would otherwise end up in landfills. "Post-industrial" recycled material, usually some kind of industrial scrap, is also highly desirable.

-- The amount of energy required to make the product. This includes the energy required to get the raw materials and make each ingredient as well as the final product. Unfortunately, most manufacturers do not give out this information.

-- The distance from the source to your house. The U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program, a point system that rates sustainability in housing, gives a credit for materials sourced and produced within 500 miles of the building site.

-- Indoor air quality. Some materials emit volatile organic chemicals into the air, which can cause eye, nose and respiratory irritations in sensitive individuals. The VOC that has caused the most concern is formaldehyde, which has been classified as a carcinogen by the World Health Organization.

-- Ease of maintenance. Any material that requires regular sealing and vigilance to prevent stains and scratches will be a challenge in many households.

-- The product's life cycle. Can the countertop that you are selecting today be recycled or reused in the future?

Make sure your information is up to date. The world of green building is changing rapidly as manufacturers scramble to make their products greener. Updated information may lead you to make choices that differ from conventional green thinking.

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