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Kitchen Countertops: Which Are The Most Eco-Friendly?

By Wayne Groszko Rise Renewable Energy Expert
Oct 10, 2017

If you are looking for a new kitchen countertop, what should you consider about its sustainability? We talked with Nick Rudnicki of RSI Projects, a renovator and custom builder in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, to dig beneath the surface of countertops.

What do you look for in a kitchen countertop? We’re betting your wish list includes these things:

  • Durability
  • Beauty
  • Ease of cleaning
  • Sustainability

The sustainability question boils down to – where does it come from, and what is it made of? Countertops can be made from a wide variety of materials, with different qualities and environmental impacts.

laminate countertop
Photo Credit: Wayne Groszko

What Is a Laminate Countertop?

This is the most common and affordable kind of countertop. Laminate countertops are mostly wood fiberboard, with a thin layer of laminated paper glued to the top. The hard surface of the laminate is melamine resin, typically made from melamine and formaldehyde. Fiberboard may contain formaldehyde in the glue. Formaldehyde can off-gas, decreasing your indoor air quality. A laminate countertop is not the best environmental choice for this reason. Ask for formaldehyde-free fiberboard and resin if you are going with laminate countertops.

concrete countertop
Photo Credit: Gail Hunt

What Is A Solid Surface Countertop?

Solid surface countertops are molded of a single material, which can be made of many different materials, including polymers, concrete, engineered stone, and recycled glass.

What Is a Polymer Countertop?

Made from petroleum, a polymer countertop can have high durability and relatively low maintenance, although it is vulnerable to scratches and melting. The petroleum and high embodied energy (energy to manufacture the products) make this a less sustainable choice.

What Is a Concrete Countertop?

Poured-in-place concrete countertops can be stained in many colors and patterns and can have other materials embedded in them for artistic effects, like colorful bits of reused glass. Cement production for concrete causes significant greenhouse gas emissions, but the embodied energy is not as high as you might think, as we’ll see later.

What Is an Engineered Stone Countertop?

Stone dust and chips, often quartz, molded together with epoxy to make a solid surface. This uses a waste product from the production of larger stone pieces, but the epoxy adds to the environmental impact.

What Is a Recycled Glass or Ceramic Countertop?

Everything from wine bottles to mirrors to dishware is now recyclable into solid countertops. This product design saves resources by using recycled materials. However, the energy consumption to make the product is relatively high.

eco cosentino countertop
Photo Credit: Cosentino

Among the solid surface countertops, an example of a high environmental performer is the countertop Silestone® Eco Line (formerly known as Eco by Cosentino). This product is made of 75% recycled glass, porcelain, pottery, and vitrified ashes, with the other 25% being natural stone dust, pigments, and resin. The finished product is a hard, long-lasting surface that resists scratching and staining.

stone countertop
Photo Credit: Wayne Groszko

What Is A Stone Countertop?

Stone countertops are made from solid slabs of quarried stone – typically granite, marble, or slate. They are quite durable, but granite and marble are porous and need sealing to protect from stains every year.

Stone is a natural resource obtained by quarrying, and it is not in short supply. It can also be returned to the earth when it is no longer used as a countertop or used for something else, so it is a healthy material in that sense.

But the quarrying and transport of heavy stone slabs requires a lot of energy and often involves hard manual labor and unsafe working conditions in countries where extraction of the lower-cost stone occurs. If you choose a stone countertop, look for local stone producers and find out all you can about where and how the stone is quarried and processed.

wood countertop
Photo Credit: Wayne Groszko

What Is A Wood Countertop?

Solid wood is regularly used in countertops, often as ‘butcher block,’ which is many narrow pieces of wood glued together. Wider planks can also be glued together to form a surface. High-grade, thick plywood can also make a fine countertop, with the ply edges proudly exposed. And interesting shapes of countertops can be made with ‘live edge’ wood planks.

Wood has significant sustainability advantages. It is a renewable material that takes little energy to produce and process. And if it’s sustainably harvested, it stores carbon dioxide in the wood itself for the life of the countertop, decreasing the impact on climate. When a wood countertop is taken out of service, it can be refinished and reused for other projects.

The downside of a wood countertop is maintenance. It requires frequent refinishing.

stainless steel countertop
Photo Credit: Wayne Groszko

What Is A Stainless Steel Countertop?

A stainless steel countertop is usually a thin sheet of stainless steel with plywood underneath to support it. Steel is a very long-lasting material that maintains its appeal over time with virtually no maintenance, and it’s one of the easiest surfaces to clean.

From a sustainability perspective, it takes a lot of energy to produce stainless steel, so that’s a knock against it. But it will last the life of the building, which makes up for the high initial energy. Stainless steel countertops are often fabricated at local workshops to fit your space, so you can get the shape you are looking for.

embodied energy for countertops
*All quantities are approximate. Estimated energy used to produce and deliver one square metre of countertop. Calculated based on embodied energy data from the Australian government.

What Is the Most Environmentally Friendly Countertop?

We crunched the numbers on how much energy it takes to make different countertops (embodied energy). The amounts are per square meter of countertop surface. When it comes to embodied energy, lower is better. A product that takes less energy to produce typically has a lower environmental impact, at least on an energy basis.

Wood has the lowest embodied energy, with concrete surprisingly not that much higher. Granite is in the middle of the pack if you can get it from a local quarry but is much higher when imported from another continent, mainly because of transporting such a heavy material.

Any material made of wood gets a credit (the green bar in the chart) for storing carbon in the wood. The credit is the amount of energy that would need to be saved elsewhere to reduce carbon dioxide emissions equivalent to the carbon stored in the wood. This credit also applies to laminate and stainless steel countertops because wood is most of the material for these countertops.

Concrete, by contrast, gets a carbon emission penalty (the orange bar), nearly doubling its effective embodied energy, because the production of cement for concrete causes extra greenhouse gas emissions beyond those from energy use. This is because the process of making cement emits additional carbon dioxide. Still, even with the penalty, the concrete countertop rates in the lower part of the group for embodied energy.

Stainless steel is attractive because, even though it has medium-high embodied energy, it will outlast the others – by as much as five times the lifespan over wood – and requires almost no maintenance. So, the up-front investment of energy will be well paid back over time. And when its life as a countertop comes to an end, steel goes right back into the re-using and recycling stream. When we asked Nick Rudnicki what his next countertop will be made of, he said, “Definitely stainless steel. It lasts forever, and you hardly have to do anything to look after it.”

Bottom Line

Every kind of countertop has its ups and downs, from a sustainability perspective, with some scoring well in one way and some in another. Wood scores well on lowest energy, recycled glass on making use of recycled materials, and stainless steel on longevity. Consider which aspects are most important to you when you make your choice.

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2021-05-19T17:36:10+0000
Wayne Groszko

Article by:

Wayne Groszko

Wayne Groszko is a consultant, researcher, and teacher in Energy Sustainability with 13 years of experience. He has taught at Dalhousie University and the Nova Scotia Community College, in the Faculties of Engineering, Environmental Science, and Energy Sustainability Engineering Technology. Wayne is also President of the Community Energy Cooperative of New Brunswick, and has worked as Renewable Energy Coordinator with the Ecology Action Centre in Nova Scotia. He holds a B.Sc. (Hon.) from the University of Calgary, and a Ph.D. from Dalhousie University.