Choosing kitchen countertops: Our top picks
Countertops are often kitchen showpieces, speaking to the style and environmental sensibilities of the homeowner. And because we prepare our meals on them, their environmental and health effects are intimately linked with our daily lives.
Although no countertop material has zero impact on our planet, we believe the materials below have superior environmental and health attributes. For more information on the pros and cons of these materials and others, see our complete guide to choosing countertop materials.
Concrete is highly durable and can be poured in place for custom counters. It is not inherently a green product—cement production and transportation are extremely energy-intensive—but if the aggregate is recycled and locally sourced, the energy intensity falls.
Concrete can be molded into custom shapes and dyed almost any color or given distinctive blended looks, though you should inquire about the toxicity of dyes. Once cast into countertops, concrete can withstand heat very well. However, concrete counters should be sealed periodically to limit stains, water damage and bacterial growth, and heat can damage the seal.
Treated well, concrete can last a lifetime. At the end of its useful life in your kitchen, it can be reused whole or cut for other projects. Unwanted concrete can be crushed into aggregate for producing new concrete, saving energy used in mining resources to produce new concrete and keeping old concrete out of landfills.
According to Ask the Builder, a concrete countertop can be a DIY project for a skilled homeowner.
Glass tiles can be environmentally preferable to ceramic because they can have 100 percent recycled content. The production process for recycling glass into tiles, called sintering, consumes far less energy than making new tiles from virgin materials.
Glass tiles scratch more easily than ceramic, however, and may be less uniform, making it necessary to use more grout. Their potential surface irregularity may affect their use as countertops, which is why architects and designers often recommend using them only as accents or backsplashes.
As with ceramic tiles, locally produced tiles are environmentally preferable. Glass tiles do not offgas VOCs if water-based grout is used. Glass tiles are easier than ceramic to reuse or recycle, but removing them is just as difficult.
Paper composite surfaces are composed of recycled paper and other fibers that have been impregnated with resin. Paper composite handles heat well and is very durable—the material does not nick easily, and the darker colors resist staining.
The resin does not come from recycled sources, but it constitutes a small amount of the material. Because the resin is a thermoset plastic, paper-based solid surfaces are not recyclable, though they can be recut and retooled for future use. Overall, solid-paper composites are environmentally preferable to plastic-based solid surfaces, since wood is a renewable resource, while petroleum is not.
Maintaining paper composites over their long life will reduce their overall environmental impact; a nonabrasive cleaner and a sponge are adequate for routine cleaning. Countertops can be sealed with mineral oil to improve moisture and stain resistance.
Plastic countertops made from recycled materials range widely in look, recycled content, recyclability and composition. Some are made of compressed yogurt containers and aluminum, while others end up looking close to terrazzo.
Recycled plastic surfaces are typically quite long-lasting, resist moisture and do not offgas VOCs—but they burn easily, can be scratched and may warp.
Terrazzo countertops, also known as recycled glass countertops, are one of the more popular countertop materials right now. Terrazzo consists of crushed stone and glass set in a cement or epoxy substrate that is buffed smooth. Overall, terrazzo can be a good green choice, due to its 40-year-plus lifespan, low maintenance and high recycled content, especially if you use local materials to avoid transportation-related energy use and emissions. Glass, stone and other recycled materials can make up as much as 95 percent of the materials in terrazzo.
The environmental and health impacts of terrazzo lie in the epoxy or cement substrate, which can be up to 30 percent of the material. Epoxy is petroleum-derived, cannot be recycled and can contain a number of potentially harmful chemicals such as phthalates. Once epoxy has cured, it has little impact on air quality, is nonporous and does not need to be sealed.
Cement binders have high embodied energy and contribute greatly to global CO2. Cement-based terrazzo should be sealed to limit staining; it resists scratches extremely well. It can be crushed and incorporated into new terrazzo, effectively recycling it.
Untreated hardwood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is the best choice on strictly environmental terms. Since growing and harvesting trees is an environmentally disruptive activity, salvaged wood is environmentally optimal. FSC-certified wood from local, sustainably managed forests cuts down on shipping costs and energy. Untreated wood is truly a renewable resource, and it requires much less industrial processing than other countertop materials.
Wood is not a good choice for continually wet areas, such as the space immediately surrounding a sink. It can also be burned, scorched, dented and stained, so it requires care and regular cleaning. However, kept sealed with natural mineral oil to prevent drying, wood is a highly durable and healthy counter material. Mechanically fastening wood countertops avoids adhesives and makes removing the material easier.
At the end of its use as a countertop, wood can be reused, given to materials exchanges or, if not treated with toxic materials, chipped and composted or allowed to biodegrade.