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Articles by Jim Heaphy
for Kitchen & Bath Design News

‘Green’ Countertop Options Are Wide Ranging

As scientific evidence of global warming mounts, the trend toward environmental responsibility in new construction and remodeling grows as well. Interviewed in February in the Memphis Daily News, Jim Lutz, professor of architecture at the University of Memphis, said that the green building movement “is going to be the issue that dominates the field of architecture for the next century.”

Lutz and his students have designed a home to be built this summer that will be one of the first to meet the U.S. Green Building Council’s new LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) guidelines for homes.

Homeowners today are increasingly likely to weigh the environmental impact of the various materials they are considering for use in their homes, and the visibility of countertop surfaces leads to increased attention to “green countertop materials.”

Solid Surface

Many green building advocates object to conventional solid surface materials because their ingredients are made from non-renewable resources. Acrylic resins are derived from petroleum, and alumina trihydrate fillers are obtained from bauxite ore, which is most often obtained from open pit mines in Third World countries.

Solid surface manufacturers say they are striving to improve their environmental performance in many different ways. The aluminum industry has made a commitment to rehabilitate old bauxite mine sites to a condition “indistinguishable from their pre-mining condition,” according to the International Aluminium Institute.

It takes roughly one barrel of crude oil to make the acrylic resin needed to manufacture the solid surface material for countertops in an average-sized kitchen. Those countertops can easily last for 20 to 30 years or longer, and can be repaired or renovated as needed. Informed consumers must decide whether or not it is unreasonable to use petroleum in this way.

Large manufacturers of solid surface materials, quartz products and plastic laminates used by countertop fabricators, such as DuPont, Cambria, Silestone, Formica, Nevamar and Wilsonart, have obtained independent, third-party GREENGUARD Indoor Air Quality certification, which assures that their products comply with strict standards limiting chemical emissions, primarily volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

New Options

The desire to use a countertop material that meets even higher environmental standards has led to a proliferation of new products that are being marketed as environmentally friendly. These products are manufactured using a variety of recycled or renewable raw materials. For example, at least three companies now offer countertop slabs made primarily of recycled glass.

IceStone is manufactured in Brooklyn, NY out of recycled glass in a concrete matrix. Some patterns also incorporate recycled post-industrial Mother of Pearl chips. The company operates in a renovated day-lit facility and employs a multicultural workforce that is over 20% Tibetan refugees.

EnviroGLAS uses recycled glass and porcelain embedded in epoxy resin binder to make its countertop product called EnviroSLAB in Garland, TX. The material is 75% recycled glass and 25% binder by volume. The company won the National Recycling Coalition’s 2006 Outstanding Market Development Award.

Vetrazzo is another countertop material that consists of 85% recycled glass in concrete. The company operates in Richmond, CA out of a renovated factory that is on the National Register of Historic Places, and it recently received a $1.3 million grant from California to expand its product line.

Two companies are manufacturing paper-based countertop materials. These products bear some resemblance to plastic laminates, but are much thicker and lack the melamine top coat common to plastic laminates.

Richlite, in Tacoma, WA, is a countertop material made primarily of paper derived from certified managed forests in North America. The binder is phenolic resin. The manufacturer incorporates a limited percentage of recycled paper into the product, but believes that new paper offers superior quality and performance.

PaperStone is a countertop material made by KlipTech Bio Composites in Hoquiam, WA. There are two categories of PaperStone: The original is made with 50% post-consumer recycled paper, while PaperStone Certified is made with 100% post-consumer recycled paper, and is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). The company says it uses “non-petroleum based resins”.

Rapidly renewable resources are the holy grail of green building materials. This term refers to useful plant fiber materials that can be re-grown in less than 10 years, as opposed to 50 years or so for red oak, for example. The category includes products made of cork, sorghum, wheat straw, sunflower hulls and bamboo. Of these materials, bamboo has achieved the greatest success in conventional western construction.

Totally Bamboo is a company that now offers laminated bamboo countertop sheets in thicknesses of 1-1/2" and 2" and lengths up to 8 feet. The material is 16% harder than maple, and is laminated in crossbanded layers using food grade, formaldehyde-free adhesives.

Alkemi is a countertop material made by Renewed Materials LLC of Cabin John, MD. It is composed of 60% recycled post-industrial scrap aluminum with either clear or opaque polymeric resin binders. The scrap aluminum consists of distinctively curled shavings, and the product comes in two finishes. With the textured finish, the aluminum shavings are fully encapsulated within the sheet, but visible through clear resin. The honed finish, on the other hand, is machined so that exposed aluminum is visible on the surface.

Squak Mountain Stone is a unique countertop product manufactured in Woodinville, WA by Tiger Mountain Innovations. The product is a composite that includes mixed paper, crushed glass, granite dust, fly ash and Portland cement. Fly ash is an industrial byproduct produced in coal-fired electric generating plants. It is a fine powder that can be mixed with cement in ratios approaching 50%, reducing the amount of cement needed to make a strong product. The environmental benefit of using fly ash as an additive is that cement is an energy-intensive product to manufacture, whereas fly ash is an inevitable byproduct of energy generation from coal.

Origins is a 100% recycled polyethylene countertop material manufactured by Yemm & Hart in Marquand, MO. The company makes Origins out of colorful recycled post-consumer detergent bottles. Because the recycled bottles are sorted by color before being shredded into flakes, the manufacturer can accurately formulate and produce a variety of standard colors and patterns.

It can be expected that some of these companies will thrive, while perhaps others may fade away. However, it seems sure that the demand for countertop materials perceived as “green” is bound to grow for a long time to come. Accordingly, it would be wise for countertop fabricators to give consideration to adding some of these products to their mix of offerings, and to develop policies regarding their own commitment to environmental responsibility.
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