Counter Intelligence: What's the Right Choice for a Kitchen Counter?

Kitchen with custom white cabinets and stone counters
credit: Granite counters

This is a series where I take my lectures presented as adjunct professor teaching sustainable design at Ryerson University School of Interior Design in Toronto, and distill them down to a sort of visual story of options.

When people buy a home or apartment, they don't have a lot of options. That's why kitchen counters are so interesting; it's one of the few places where people do have a lot of choice. These days, they all seem to pick one of the hundreds of stones and granites that are available today. How did this happen? What are the alternatives? What is the greenest and most sustainable choice?

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Plastic Laminate

credit: Xray-delta

Fifty or sixty years ago, almost every kitchen counter was plastic laminate. It was a miracle material originally invented to replace mica as insulation (for-mica), made up of layers of paper impregnated with thermosetting resin (bakelite, the first commercially successful plastic). After World War II they added a decorative sheet and sealed it all up in melamine. It was cheap, colorful, and a lot more durable and easy to clean than the tile or linoleum people used before. They could form it to make backsplashes and do bullnoses to stop dripping at the front. But it is easily scratched, burned and did stain if you weren't careful.

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credit: Howard Roark cutting granite/ The Fountainhead

Nobody used granite for countertops. It was quarried and cut by craftsmen in big chunks for buildings, all custom cut. It came from Vermont and Quebec in a couple of colors, that was it. There was granite all over the world, but shipping it was really expensive and in many countries, there weren't the trained people who could work with the stuff. So what changed?

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It got containerized

credit: Granite in shipping container

The biggest development in the granite business was the shipping container, which dramatically dropped the cost of shipping anything around the world. If it could fit in a box then it could go anywhere. But what would they ship in that box?

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It got commodified

credit: Slices of granite in showroom.

A key insight was that it may take a lot of skill to do custom granite, but it doesn't take much to slice it up, so the 3/4" slab of granite essentially became the international standard. This worked really well because you could slice it at the quarry, ensure that the pieces are not cracked or flawed, rack them and ship them.

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It got globalized

credit: Granite slices

With commodification and containerization, granite could be sourced and shipped and manufactured anywhere. So today it comes from India, Brazil, China, almost anywhere. Add in the fact that it got computerized, with giant tools that cut out granite like a CNC cutter cuts out plywood, and you have an international market in a thin veneer of granite. A builder in Houston might order a Brazilian granite, and send the plans to China where they cut it to size and then ship it to America. They can do this and install it for a couple of bucks per square foot because back in Brazil or India, it costs a couple of pennies.

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Veneer of Granite

credit: installing granite via Youtube

And when you finish installing your veneer of granite, what do you have? In fact the stuff is full of fissures and microscopic cracks that have to be filled and sealed. Studies have shown that these can become breeding areas for bacteria. To top it all off, some of it is seriously radioactive. One consultant noted in the New York Times:

“It’s not that all granite is dangerous,” said Stanley Liebert, the quality assurance director at CMT Laboratories in Clifton Park, N.Y. “But I’ve seen a few that might heat up your Cheerios a little.”

As I noted in

Really, the stuff makes a lousy counter that is subject to contamination, the workers who extract it are exploited, it is shipped all over the world chasing the cheapest labour to extract and then cut it, and it may even be radioactive. I can't imagine why anyone wants it.

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Alternatives: Corian

credit: Dupont Corian

Corian was the first of a number of "solid surfaces" where various materials are mixed with acrylic resins. Corian is marketed as a green and sustainable material good for lots of LEED points, being durable, low VOC, and non-toxic. Designers have been doing wonderful things with it, and it is certainly easier to work on and with than granite. But even though it has been around since the seventies, until recently it was really hard to actually find out what it was made of; there certainly isn't much transparency on the Dupont website. Now they note that "DuPontTMCorian® is made from natural materials (2/3 of DuPontTMCorian® is made from bauxite); assembly adhesive is made from PMMA (polymethyl methacrylate) resin." Right. Actually they get Aluminum Hydroxide out of the bauxite, the mining of which threatens wild rivers in Australia and massive devastation in Jamaica. It comes out of that red mud that destroyed a town in Hungary. But it's natural! And Green!

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Imitation Corian

credit: LG- Eden

But nobody ever did more egregious and hilarious greenwashing than the makers of LG-Eden, one of the many imitation Corians that came on the market after the Dupont patents ran out. Look at that ad from 2007, (they will have to live this down forever) with a levitating hippie a guy actually hugging a tree and all that flower power imagery and the statement: When we go green, we go all the way. What do they do that's different? They note that "the Eden Collection is created from a minimum of 12% pre-consumer recycled material." And where do they get that? "During the manufacturing process, LG takes an environmentally responsible approach to handling imperfect sheets by utilizing them as regrind material to be used in standard line colors versus sending them to a landfill." In other words, they grind up their own mistakes and manufacturing inefficiencies that should not have been made in the first place, and call that green.

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Quartz solid surfaces

credit: Lloyd Alter/ Caesarstone counter with Jasper on bed

All kinds of materials can be mixed into resin to make solid surfaces. Caesarstone started in a kibbutz in Israel just outside of Caesaria, hence the name. It's a mix of 93% quartz and resin; Dupont makes a version, Zodiaq, with Quebec quartz. Like most solid surfaces, it's VOC free and totally inert and solid. I used it for my sink in the hall in my recent renovation, and find it easy to maintain.

Caesarstone says that its quartz is "a common waste product of other mining industries that Caesarstone utilizes for production, thus eliminating environmental waste. The collected material is then processed, crushed, washed and sifted prior to the manufacturing process."

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Paper solid surfaces

credit: Sustain Minihome

Richlite and Paperstone are two manufacturers of a solid surfaces built up out of paper and resin. Both claim to be terrific eco-products. Richlite is made from 65% paper and 35% resin. They do not use recycled paper (they claim it is not good enough) and they do not use water based resin, claiming their methanol/ethanol process is better. They burn the fumes off to run their processes.

They call it Eco-Bind. Richlite claims that their materials are colorfast and suitable for outdoor use, but Andy Thomson clad the first Sustain Minihome in the stuff and after three years it was faded and looked like old cardboard. It had to be reclad at great expense. Needless to say, I am not a fan. Paperstone calls itself "the countertop with a conscience. It is made from " from post-consumer recycled paper that has been saturated with our proprietary PetroFreeTM phenolic resins."

We develop the greenest, most natural and environmentally friendly manufacturing processes that are economically possible. We intend to tread lightly on the earth by being both innovative and environmentally aware. We believe that economic and environmental health is ultimately interdependent.

They trademark their "PetroFreeTM" phenolic resin but nowhere can I find out what it actually is, it's proprietary. They definitely lose points for transparency here.

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Alkemi solid surface

credit: Alkemi

Alkemi is a mix 84% to 97% metal shavings, originally aluminum and now copper, mixed into acrylic resins. It is lovely to look at and gets all the LEED points for use of recycled materials, and its designer and developer, Demir Hamami, is a charming man who comes to all the Greenbuild and other shows.

I do keep asking why it is a good thing to put this scrap into a countertop instead of recycling it. In 2008 Demir told me that " flake aluminum milling scrap burns before it melts, and has to be expensively compressed before it can be recycled, so it usually goes into landfills." That doesn't explain making it with copper though. Lovely stuff to look at, but I remain not entirely convinced that it is the highest and best use of the metal.

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Stainless Steel

credit: Abimis

Stainless steel countertops are almost standard in restaurants. It's easy to clean, durable, almost indestructible and recyclable. It's also noisy, expensive, gets scratched easily and shows every fingerprint that goes near it. It's pretty much all custom made, although commercial kitchen suppliers do have some standard units that can work as islands.

Some make the case that it's green because it is recyclable and so durable, but it takes a lot of energy to make steel. But the manufacturers claim that "Taking into account its recyclability, reuse, long life, low maintenance and product safety, the emissions from the production and use of stainless steels are minimal when compared to any other alternative material."

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credit: Neolith

A new kid on the block is the porcelain tile. Neolith, a Spanish company makes giant porcelain sheets that are an eighth of an inch thick, in sheets up to four feet by twelve feet. They claim it is scratch resistant, flexible, easy to clean, all natural and 100% recyclable. I suspect we are going to be seeing a lot more of this in the future.

Visiting the Broad Sustainable Building factory in China last year, I saw miles of the stuff being used on floors, walls, exteriors of buildings and yes, kitchens. I have never actually seen a kitchen made with it so cannot comment on what it is like to work on.

NEOLITH is a high performance material ideal for applications such as kitchen coverings. NEOLITH does not scratch, does not stain, is heat and fire resistant, and, thanks to the extremely low absorption rate of technical porcelain, ideal for food contact and processing.
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credit: Concrete Elegance

"Concrete" and "green" are two words that I have never used together. However Alla Linetsky of Concrete Elegance, a Toronto area company, convinced me that it has merits. It is a local business; you can't ship it far. It has a lot less cement than normal concrete; you don't need a structural countertop.

Linetsky mixes up a special blend that is 77% recycled, 92% local and 30% lighter. It's also possible to do it yourself. There are instructables and videos with the how-to information. That would probably make it the cheapest solid surface counter you can get. There are a lot of horror stories out there about shrinking, staining, cracking, and the repetitive need for sealing. Some have noted that the rougher surfaces can trap food and dirt and become "food banks for bacteria."

But the Concrete Countertop Institute (yes, there is an institute for everything) claims that " if you are considering using concrete countertops in your kitchens and have concerns about cleaning and sanitation, you need to understand that well-made concrete countertops are very cleanable and sanitary, despite what you may have heard."

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Wood and butcher block

credit: Modified IKEA butcher block countertop

This looks terrific, but mixing wood and water doesn't always work out so well. I did plywood counters at my cottage fifteen years ago and it is getting pretty black and horrible around the sink these days. On the island with the stove, it's just fine. Butcher block is a great top to work on, easy on the knives. It is naturally anti-microbial, but don't cut meat and fish on it, any more than you would right on any other counter. And watch out if it ever starts opening up at the joints. But they are actually not hard to maintain, and if you do cut meat on it, follow the advice of a writer to Chowhound: Salt.

Butchers for centuries, when done cutting meat spread their soapy or simply water moistened butcher blocks with coarse salt and let it set... Salt causes the membranes of all critters large and small to explode and die. so do it periodically, and especially after chicken and you'll never have a problem.
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credit: Lloyd Alter at ICFF

We love cork at TreeHugger. It is a totally renewable product, and using it actually protects the environment, keeping the real estate developers from over-running the Portuguese cork forests, and protecting the habitat for the ever-so-cute Iberian lynx. Subterra, maker of the cork shown above, takes the remaining material after the cork wine stoppers are cut out, and recycles it into ultra high density building materials. Like wood, it isantimicrobial and hypo-allergenic. The surface is impermeable and non-porous. What's not to love?

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Terrazo/ Icestone

credit: Icestone

Like concrete counters, there are things that one can complain about with terrazzo counters like Icestone. They are made with portland cement, which is a big contributor to greenhouse gas. They are heavy, so it should really be considered a local product. They require a bit of maintenance and re-sealing and waxing. But then there is IceStone, which is unlike any other company I have looked at.

They are in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, making their precast counters out of local broken glass. But that really is just the start. They got their product Cradle to Cradle certified; they take their environmental and social responsibilities seriously. They are "a founding member of B Corp, a group of companies dedicated to improving social and environmental problems through smart, sustainable business practices." They teach their employees english and they feed them healthy food. Dig deeply enough into their website and you can probably find the menus. I am still not crazy about concrete counters, but I am totally crazy about the company for their transparency and their commitment.

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So what's the greenest countertop?

credit: Formica

I am going to come full circle and call it for Formica. I have not checked out the other plastic laminate companies, but Formica does all the right things in its Cincinnati plant. It uses FSC paper stock, biomass energy management, water based phenolic resins.

There is melamine, a plastic made with formaldehyde, but it is chemically bound into it and does not outgas. But that's not the main reason I like it so much. It's the most minimal of all the counter materials, a thin plastic layer that can be attached to a substrate. It can be moulded so that it's easy to clean. If you do damage it, it's the cheapest countertop so replacing it won't kill you. I once made a design error on a granite counter when I was working in prefab and it took thousands of dollars to replace.

Except for perhaps stainless steel, none of the other counters have any real performance advantage, and all of them cost many times more per square foot. People want granite and stone because they have been sold a bill of goods, paying more for a lousy counter because its all the fashion. They may look good, but they aren't practical, they aren't light and they certainly aren't green. But laminate is the economical, minimalist, and I believe the green solution. And did I say it was cheap?