What would you recommend as a durable, environmentally responsible, and attractive countertop material that is also reasonably priced?
I think our universal fascination with granite countertops is due to the material's tremendous strength and durability, and its aesthetic beauty. Until recently, granite was rarely seen in homes except in beautiful furniture pieces. Now we see it in nearly every mid- to high-end home, and you can buy tiles or order custom slabs at all the big-box building supply stores.
But I have a number of problems with granite and marble materials, and I don't consider many of these products at all "green." First and foremost, granite's extraction does irreparable ecological damage, slicing off enormous sides of mountains and leaving behind altered landscapes and dangerous waste.
Granite countertops are gas guzzlers—they create a great big carbon footprint from the energy used to mine, transport, and fabricate rough slabs into beautiful countertops somewhere far away from the stone's original source. Strong chemical products glue countertops to their substrate and coat their surfaces to enhance their beauty and durability. And although I always hear that stone countertops can be reclaimed and used again, I don't think this really happens very often.
Perhaps my biggest complaint is aesthetic. As a designer I feel we have gotten stuck in a crazy formulaic style, driven by the desire to create a look of opulence, and perpetuated by the real estate industry. Where has our creativity gone? Why are we afraid to move past this product, this look, to something clever, unique, and green? In that spirit, I have three ideas for an environmentally appropriate countertop.
One of the most durable materials I can think of for countertops is concrete. Concrete countertops are popular, with a lower carbon footprint than granite, and are most often made by a local fabricator. You can even try your own hand at making a concrete countertop. All kinds of reclaimed, recycled, or creative materials can be added as aggregates to make a unique concrete slab. And these countertops can be much cheaper than granite.
Local stone is another choice that's greener than imported stone. Although all quarried stone does irreparable damage to the earth, local stone avoids the carbon emissions required to freight stone from a faraway country. Your state of Maine has beautiful granite and soapstone for countertops. If you go this route, do your research to make sure the slab you buy is mined and fabricated locally in an environmentally responsible manner. Again, stone has the advantage of being a very durable material, and local stone is more affordable than imported stone.
One additional—and probably controversial—material to consider as green is good old plastic laminate. Given its improved durability, heat resistance, recycled content, and the small amount of material actually used, why not consider plastic laminate glued on top of a formaldehyde-free substrate? It's one of the more affordable countertop options available. Wilsonart and Formica are the major manufacturers of plastic laminate. Both are Greenguard certified and can help accrue LEED points as a low-emitting material.
Finally, a word of advice about wood substrate. The choice of a substrate on which to mount your countertop can be an important factor in your home's indoor air quality, as some composite wood products emit high levels of formaldehyde. Search for materials with no added urea-formaldehyde. On January 1, 2009, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) began enforcing reduced formaldehyde emissions for composite wood products, so California suppliers of these materials will have safer composite board available for countertop projects.