How can I make my kitchen remodel green?
Sounds like you have some significant kitchen remodeling plans. Don’t worry! There is light at the end of the tunnel.
One tool that should help guide your kitchen remodel is the new REGREEN residential remodeling guidelines, released by the U.S. Green Building Council and the American Society of Interior Designers. REGREEN is free to download, and it offers strategies, predesign considerations, case studies and other information on 10 different remodeling project types, including kitchen remodels.
In the meantime, I have two ideas for you to consider regarding refinishing laminate kitchen countertops.
(Please note: The U.S. Green Building Council does not promote, certify or otherwise endorse any specific products or brands. The discussion of products in this answer represents the analysis of Mick Dalrymple, who is not an employee of USGBC. His comments do not imply any position on the part of USGBC regarding these products or brands.)
The first idea starts with a product called Deco-Poz from EcoSafety Products. It is a thin-set cementitious product that sticks to pretty much everything we have tried it on, including laminate countertops (sand them first to create mechanical grip). It spreads like frosting and so it is sometimes hard to get a perfectly smooth surface. Therefore, you might want to intentionally add some character. You can then stain the countertop with soy concrete stains and seal it with a food-grade cement or stone sealer. Alternatively, you can also then tile over the countertop, which will raise the overall height. This will have implications for sinks and fixtures. Look for tile with high recycled content.
The second idea is to do a straight overlay. The remodeling companies that advertise this as a cost-effective remodeling solution usually offer granite or a resin-stone composite overlay. Consider the merits of the overlay (shipping part of a mountain halfway across the world or the harmful chemicals like toxic methyl methacrylate that may be involved in a composite), and make sure that any adhesives used are green certified (by a third party such as GREENGUARD or Green Seal) for harmful emissions or contents. One interesting option that we have not tried yet is using Paperstone (an extremely hard Forest Stewardship Council-certified recycled-paper-and-resin panel) in one of its thinner variations as an overlay. If you have a flat countertop profile (versus a raised edge), this could make for a stunning solution. You could also consider using Alkemi from Renewed Materials, but not if you tend to place hot pans directly on your countertop.
Regarding chemical refinishing of wood, be very cautious. Most strippers contain methylene chloride, a known carcinogen and suspected toxicant, or n-methyl pyrrolidone, a recognized toxicant. Try EcoSafety’s Poly Stripper, or a citrus-based stripper, or possibly Sea-to-Sky Innovations from SPC Technology. You are most likely going to need to do a test, as different products provide different results on different finishes. For a wood floor, I would recommend sanding. For cabinets, sanding might also work best unless you have a lot of detail that is hard to get at. If you are re-staining, use natural or low and formaldehyde-free stains and sealers (such as from AFM Safecoat, Osmo, Bioshield or Eco ProCote TimberSoy), or use a wax oil finish (like Osmo or AFM Naturals). If you are painting cabinets, use certified green paints such as American Pride, AFM Safecoat or Yolo from a dealer who mixes colors using only zero-VOC pigments.
To your last question, the most environmental course of action is to not remodel unless there is a health hazard. This would equate to “reduce” in the “reduce, reuse, recycle” hierarchy. If that is not in the cards, then try some of the green methods above and “reuse” the current kitchen. The third option is to remodel, in which case you can “recycle” as much as possible through a local Habitat for Humanity ReStores or other re-use organization and then also use as many recycled materials as possible in your remodel. I would not use non-green methods to restore existing countertops, cabinetry and floors. The price is going to be paid in indoor air quality and, therefore, the long-term health of your family and pets. We are just now starting to reap and understand the health consequences of using toxic building products for the last 40 years. Once you go down the more healthful road, you will see and feel the benefits and not ever imagine going back.