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Counter Top Reality

In the mid-1970’s some clothing designer came up with the brilliant design for polyester leisure suits. For about five years everyone just had to have one. Why, you wouldn’t be groovy if you didn’t wear one to work, the disco or even church.

We look back now and wonder why anyone would purposely dress like that. Folks did it because someone spend millions of dollars to market a product and like sheep, the American consumer jumped on board.

Today, homeowners buy into just about anything advertisers tell them they can’t get along without. This disturbing reality is no less so in regard to kitchen countertops.

If you tune in to HGTV you’d think that if you don’t have granite countertops the world would end. I have never been a fan of granite countertops. Granite is a cold, hard, unforgiving and costly material for the place you prepare your meals. Drop a glass on granite and kiss it goodbye.

Several recent studies have shown that certain types of granite emit small amount of radiation and/or radon gas. The amounts are well under the EPA limits but since we are exposed to so many small amounts of radiation, (cell phones, basement radon, x-rays, microwave ovens etc.) it seems to me that when we put all of the exposures together we may be adding risk to our well being.

Granite is also one of the least environmentally sound surfaces available. Granite quarries rape the environment and because it is so heavy and hard, it takes more energy to remove from the ground, cut, polish and transport than any other natural, solid surface material. Granite must have a surface finish applied every two years. As the finish wears off its porous surface can hold harmful bacteria. Cost: $140 to $700 a running foot, installed.

Here are some of the other standard and obvious materials, their cost and environmental impact. The costs are based on a running foot. This is the length of a countertop in feet. Each running foot of a standard 25″ deep top is a hair over two square feet.

Concrete has found a level of popularity. If kept constantly sealed its naturally porous surface can be safe. There are some very nice surface finishes that can make it almost look like leather. If done correctly cracking should be minimal but it does happen. Concrete is very energy intensive to make but more recycled concrete products are becoming available. Cost: $150 to $600 a running foot, installed.

Stainless steel is always rated as the most sanitary by the various organizations studying this issue. It is the least porous surface available. Manufacturing stainless steel is very energy and chemical intense and as such is not very green. Cost: $200 to $600 a running foot, installed

Solid surface countertops like Corion are much more forgiving, easily repaired and almost half the cost of granite. However, because the non-renewable and expensive resource oil is used to make this plastic resin, these products are not environmentally sound either. Cost: $100 to $200 a running foot, installed.

Laminate (often and incorrectly referred to by the trade name Formica) is still the best standard value out there today. Laminate countertops have proven themselves over the years to be durable, sanitary and cost effective. These tops come in hundreds of colors, patterns and edge designs. The downside is that this product is made with layers of paper that are resin soaked with melamine and formaldehyde which are very toxic chemicals that never degrade in landfills. Cost: $30 to $80 a running foot, installed.

Ok, if most of the countertop materials we’re familiar with are not “green” or environmentally sound what’s a homeowner to do. The good news is that there are more and more recycled and otherwise environmentally sound materials hitting the market.

My favorite countertop material is solid hard rock maple. Butcher-block counter tops have an excellent track record and were the countertops of choice in the original kitchens of historic homes. Wood, if logging is managed properly, is a completely renewable resource and it takes much less energy to produce the finished product than just about any other countertop material.

As long as you keep maple tops clean they are sanitary, look good and can be repaired easily. Some complain about stains but modern food safe, penetrating finishes virtually eliminate this issue. Knives can damage the surface but this is true of most countertop materials. Don’t forget that no counter top should be used as a cutting board. Cost: $60 to $120 a running foot, installed.

Recycled glass tops are becoming more available. Glass is a non-porous material and if made thick and then tempered, it makes a very unique, durable and easily cleaned working surface for any kitchen. Different color variations and textures are available. Cost: $170 to $300 a running foot, installed.

Recycled paper countertops are becoming more available. Made with 100% recycled paper products and petroleum-free, phenolic resins they are amazingly durable and very environmentally sound. Cost: $140 to $500 a running foot, installed

For other eco-friendly countertop materials see