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New environmentally friendly countertop materials add green to your kitchen

By Katherine Salant
Saturday, January 9, 2010; E01

At the U.S. Green Building Council's trade show in Phoenix recently, I encountered three intriguing countertop materials: IceStone, Bio-Glass and Eco. Each adds an innovative, green spin to its market niche.

IceStone countertops are made of concrete. Though still a novel product to the average homeowner, this type of countertop has been developed and perfected over the past 20 years by a small group of independent artisans across the country. With soft, opaque colors, it looks like a far cry from a floor slab, and the artists typically go to great lengths to produce a finish that conceals the small-stone aggregates in the mix.

IceStone turns this aesthetic on its ear; the countertops expose the aggregate, which is recycled glass. Colored pigment is added to the cement binder to create darker colors. (Jimi Hendrix fans will appreciate the smoky "Purple Haze" variety.) For the lighter-colored countertops, the hues are created by the colors of the glass fragments; the cement binder is white. Another aesthetic difference with IceStone is its highly polished, reflective surface. This gives the finished product an edgy, urban look, which seems especially fitting given the producer's location in New York City.

Though recycled glass can be found in abundant quantities in New York, IceStone's materials are sourced from elsewhere because the city's recycling program is not ready for prime time, IceStone's co-president, Miranda Magagnini, said. All the glass the city collects is "commingled," meaning that all different types of glass are thrown together. Before it can be reused, it must be sorted and cleaned of all residues. In IceStone's case, the glass would also have to be broken to get the right-size fragments. Finessing this thankless chore, the firm gets its recycled glass from firms that make it ready for reuse.

Definitely a high-end product, IceStone runs $80 to $160 a square foot, installed.

High-end glass countertops typically look like perfect sheets of ice -- smooth and clear without a single air bubble. By this standard, Bio-Glass is deeply flawed. By any other measure, however, the material is intriguing; there is nothing like it in the marketplace.

Bio-Glass is made from recycled bottles. They are broken into much larger pieces than IceStone uses, and these bigger shards are melted just enough to fuse the stacked layers into a 3/4-inch-thick countertop. The finished surface is slightly rippled by the softened edges of the shards on the topmost layer. When the darker colors are lit from above, the edges of the fused shards make the material look veined. When the lighter colors are lit from below (the countertop can be installed with concealed lighting underneath), the fused shards look like fossils.

More bottles are required to make a Bio-Glass countertop than you might suspect. For example, a 2-by-8-foot countertop (a common size in American kitchens) of the dark brown "fossil amber" would require about 450 12-ounce beer bottles.

Bio-Glass is also high-end. The $90-a-square-foot quote from the company did not include the installation cost.

Countertop aficionados will note that an Eco countertop looks exactly like a Silestone one. This is no coincidence; the two products are made by Cosentino, and the same process is used for both. What differentiates them is their material mix. Silestone is an engineered stone product made with 93 percent quartz and 7 percent acrylic binder. With Eco, the quartz has been replaced with an eclectic mix of recycled products including glass from bottles and windows; porcelain from dishware, sinks and toilets; stone scraps; and crystallized ash. Because the recycled materials lack the strength of quartz, four times as much binder is required; of this about one quarter is corn-oil based and the rest is the same acrylic, petroleum-based resin used in Silestone.

As with Silestone's quartz particles, Eco's glass and porcelain fragments impart a visual depth. Also like Silestone, Eco looks like polished granite, albeit a stone that you won't recognize.

Eco is another high-end product; its installed cost ranges from about $90 to $100 a square foot.

In addition to their innovative use of recycled materials, these three countertops share another distinction: They are the only countertop materials that have Cradle to Cradle certification.

This should interest all environmentally concerned homeowners because Cradle to Cradle is a rigorous third-party certification process that assesses the environmental and health effects of various products, including many that are used in home building.

Known as C2C in the green-building industry, Cradle to Cradle's certification process includes a visit to the manufacturing facilities and an extremely detailed analysis of every ingredient. The required information is so detailed, in fact, that C2C employees must sign a non-disclosure agreement with every company that seeks its services.

The C2C certification program is administered by McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry of Charlottesville.

The C2C product evaluations focus on five things: product ingredients and their effect on human and environmental health; the amount of recycled content and the extent to which the product can be recycled at the end of its useful life; the amount of renewable energy used to make it; the amount of water used and the impact of the manufacturing processes on local and regional water systems; and social responsibility, corporate ethics and fair labor practices.

C2C has four levels of certification: platinum, gold, silver and basic. In the four years since the C2C certification program began, no product has received the platinum rating and only 12, including IceStone, have earned gold. Bio-Glass and Eco are both rated silver.

Homeowners should note, however, that the C2C evaluations look at the big picture, not the practical considerations such as durability and maintenance. With IceStone, the countertops must be regularly sealed and spills must be cleaned up promptly to prevent staining. Though hairline cracks are common with concrete countertops, Ice Stone says they are rare when its product is installed properly. It does not offer a warranty. Bio-Glass will not stain, but it can be scratched, and cutting boards should always be used. It also does not offer a warranty. Eco does not stain, no sealers are required, it does not scratch, and its warranty is for five years.

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