Which Countertop Is Most Sustainable? 

STAIN

Determining the most sustainable countertop material for your home can be a confusing process. This is because the answer to this question is complicated and complex. The reality is that no building material, countertops or otherwise, will check off every single box on the sustainability or health factor roster. No products on the market today are 100% free from having an impact on the environment. So the best we can do currently, is to do our best to select products that limit as much as possible their negative impacts on the environment. 

Keep reading as we break down the different environmental and health factors to consider when selecting a countertop material for your home, and how to assess and rank those factors on their impact to the environment and your own health. 

Read on to learn which countertop materials are the most sustainable!

The 6 Sustainable Countertop Factors to Assess

When selecting materials and products for your home, you will want to consider the environmental impact of those materials. These are the 6 different factors we recommend considering when assessing the sustainability of a building material such as countertops:

  1. The origins
  2. The manufacturing process
  3. The means of transportation
  4. The packaging and installation
  5. The maintenance required
  6. The means of disposal

As mentioned above, no product will rank high in all six of these areas, so the first step is for you to determine for yourself which of these factors are the most important to you. We find it’s helpful to determine which 2-3 of these factors are the most important to you, and then select the material that ranks positively in those areas. (Ranking positively means that it has the least negative impact on the environment out of the material options that are available to you.)

So let’s take a look now at the different countertop materials on the market today and how each one stacks up against these 6 environmental impact factors.

Marble & Granite Countertops

Image via Decoholic

Marble and granite may be the trickiest of the countertop materials to assess for sustainability because they are split along these 6 environmental impact factors—half having a high impact on the environment and approximately half having a low or lower impact on the environment. 

  1. The Origins – Sustainable

    Marble and granite are naturally occurring materials in nature and come straight from the earth. So according to some, this makes marble the ultimate sustainable material because no synthetic, manmade materials are used to produce this material. So on the surface, this does make marble and granite more sustainable than a countertop material like laminate or quartz.

    However, marble and granite are non-renewable resources that take hundreds of years to thousands of years to form. This means once we have extracted all of these materials from the earth, there will be none left.

    If you are going to use marble or granite in your home, we recommend putting extra time and care into the selection of your countertops. Be sure you select a pattern and color you’ll love for years to come so that you’re not frivolously changing them out just 5 or 10 years down the line.
  1. The Manufacturing Process – Not Sustainable

    In order to actually be able to use marble and granite, they have to be extracted from the earth at quarries. This extraction process uses large amounts of gasoline and water to operate the heavy machinery and electricity at these quarries.

    The extraction process also turns between 30% – 70% of the raw material into waste which is dumped into the surrounding open land areas. This waste “creates environmental problems by contaminating soil, water, and air with adverse health effects on all the living organisms” in that area.

  2. The Means of Transportation – Not Sustainable

    In the US the vast majority of marble and granite are imported from far away, across the globe. Therefore, these materials have a large carbon footprint from the shipping and transportation involved to get these materials to the US.

    A carbon footprint is the amount of carbon dioxide and other carbon compounds emitted due to the consumption of fossil fuels by a particular product, person, group, etc. Actions and products that have a high carbon footprint are the main cause of human-induced climate change, contribute to urban air pollution, lead to toxic acid rain, add to coastal and ocean acidification, and worsen the melting of glaciers and polar ice.
  3. The Packaging and Installation – Not Sustainable

    Marble and granite slabs are typically shipped in reusable palettes, so the amount of packaging waste is minimal. A big win for marble and granite!

    At installation or prior to installation, marble and granite in the US are typically sealed with chemical sealers to help protect them and make them more resistant to staining. After installation, marble on average has to be sealed every year, and granite typically has to be sealed every few years. These sealers contain chemicals, some of which can potentially be harmful to us in the form of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that are released and we then breathe in. These harmful chemicals can cause short term side effects such as headaches, dizziness and nausea, and may lead to longer term health issues like cancer. 

    Additionally, marble and granite slabs have to be cut prior to installation. This process releases stone dust (very small, fine, crystalline silica dust particles) into the atmosphere. These particles can be inhaled and lodge deep in the lungs, leading to swelling and inflammation of the lungs. Eventually, this can lead to a hardening and scarring of the lung tissue which can lead to more severe lung issues! This is more of a hazard to the people cutting the marble and granite than it is to you in your home after installation, but still something to keep in mind and consider when thinking about what material to use for your countertops.
  1. The Maintenance Required – Sustainable

    No harsh chemicals are needed to keep granite surfaces clean and disinfected. A simple solution of water and mild dish soap will keep marble and granite clean.
  1. The Means of Disposal – Sustainable

    Marble and granite are both very durable and therefore unlikely to end up in a landfill because they can easily be repaired and recycled, or kept as your countertop for decades or longer.

    Marble and granite countertops can easily be cut down and repurposed for use as vanity or dining table countertops, backsplashes and even for household decor items like marble boxes or trays. And if they ever reach a point where they can no longer be used and repurposed in the home, they can be ground up and used in concrete! Therefore, marble and granite rank highly on the sustainability scale, as essentially their lifespans are infinite! 

Quartz Countertops

Image via Old Brand New

Quartz is actually a mineral, rather than a stone, and can be found in deposits scattered around the world. While quartz itself is naturally occurring, its countertop variant is more complicated than that. Read on to discover the nuances of quartz countertops. 

  1. The Origins – Sustainable

    Quartz actually forms naturally, typically from igneous rocks. When hot magma cools, crystals grow larger as silicon dioxide in the rock crystallizes. It is these crystals that comprise the quartz mineral. As such, the origination of quartz is a natural process, and is therefore a sustainable countertop in origin. 
  1. The Manufacturing Process – Not Sustainable

    Unfortunately, only a small portion of quartz is suitable for manufacturing due to the defects that can form during the natural formation process, as well as the variation in size in crystals. Many of the crystals that form can either be too defected or too small to be included in the final product. To account for this, during manufacturing, quartz crystals are mixed in with polymer resins, which are not sustainable since they are synthesized from crude oil. Therefore, the manufacturing process of quartz is not sustainable.
  1. The Means of Transportation – Sustainable if Manufactured in the USNot Sustainable if Manufactured Overseas

    The United States and Brazil produce the largest quantities of natural quartz in the world. Most of the production in the US is centered in Arkansas. That being said, although some quartz countertops are produced in the US, most manufacturers are based overseas. As a result, transportation induces a larger ecological footprint when importing from these manufacturers abroad. 

    Cambria is the only brand of quartz currently manufactured 100% in the US.

    MSI is an international quartz brand that has a large US based production plant in South Carolina that currently produces select colors from their Q Premium Natural Quartz line. Their goal is for this facility to become the largest producer of quartz countertops in North America. So they are one to watch in the coming years if looking for a quartz countertop that is manufactured in the US. 
  1. The Packaging and Installation – Sustainable

    Like marble and granite, quartz slabs are typically shipped in reusable palettes, so the amount of packaging waste is minimal.

    Unlike marble and granite, quartz does not require a sealant upon or prior to installation. Quartz is resistant to staining even without the sealers. It is a durable, non-porous material, so the use of harmful sealers is unnecessary. This is great news for people who want to avoid chemical-laden sealants on their countertops.
  1. The Maintenance Required – Sustainable

    Because quartz does not require a sealant, maintenance for quartz is simple, easy and sustainable. Simply use any natural surface cleaner and regularly wipe down the countertop to maintain its appearance. 

    Keep these few rules in mind to prevent quartz countertop damage:
  • Avoid using strong chemical cleaners, especially ammonia-based products.
  • Avoid using steel wool pads or other similarly abrasive products to clean quartz as they can damage the countertop surface.
  1. The Means of Disposal – Sustainable

    Quartz countertops are built to last a long time. In fact, most manufacturers offer generous warranties on their products, a show of their confidence in how long these countertops will last. Should you need to dispose of a quartz countertop, the process is sustainable. In the case of replacing a quartz countertop, many installers will take them off your hands without charge, from which they can then recycle the quartz. During the recycling process, the countertop is ground up and then chemically purified to separate the quartz and resin. The quartz can then be reused, thus making the disposal of quartz a sustainable process.

Wood Countertops

Image via Jenna Cooper LA

  1. The Origins – Sustainable

    As a natural material, most wood is a sustainable choice for kitchens. However it’s important to look for certifications that ensure your wood was sourced responsibly. The certification you want to look for is the Forest Stewardship Council’s FSC certification. Per their website, “this certification ensures that wood products come from responsibly managed forests that provide environmental, social and economic benefits.” You can learn more about sustainable building materials in our Materials to Avoid post
  1. The Manufacturing Process – Sustainable

    Making wood into a countertop does not require it to be processed. It only needs to be sawn and planed which uses little energy, especially compared to the manufacturing processes of quartz, granite, and marble countertops. Therefore, wood countertop production has a relatively low carbon footprint, which makes it more sustainable.
  1. The Means of Transportation – Not Sustainable

    Wood transportation results in a carbon footprint. Delivering the lumber from forests to the processing sites is not a sustainable process. Typically, the unrefined product is shipped by truck or by rail, which results in the emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere from the exhaust emitted by these vehicles. 
  1. The Packaging and Installation – Not Sustainable

    Wood countertops typically require a finish or sealant to be applied prior to installation and periodically overtime in order to protect your wood countertop from water/moisture.. Many of these finishes can cause the buildup of toxic chemicals in the home, particularly with finishes made from petroleum-based and chemical-based solvents. These solvents emit Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), which have the potential to cause health problems if they sufficiently build up in the home. It is important to be mindful of the finish used during wood countertop installation to avoid the buildup of these chemicals in your home. Further, unless eco-friendly stains are chosen, the majority of wood finish products are not sustainable.
  2. The Maintenance Required – Sustainable

    Wood only needs to be cleaned with mild soap and water. It’s best to clean along the grain for a better, deeper clean. As such, wood countertop maintenance is sustainable.
  1. The Means of Disposal – Sustainable

    Wood countertops are readily recycled, so disposal is sustainable, as long as you recycle or repurpose your old wood countertop. Additionally, unlike quartz, which requires specific recycling sites capable of separating out the quartz from the resin, there are many more sites that will accept wood to be recycled. 

Stainless Steel, Another Sustainable Countertop Option

Image via Planete Deco

  1. The Origins – Sustainable

    Stainless steel is an alloy of iron and other materials. This mixture of raw materials makes it resistant to both corrosion and rusting, unlike plain steel. The raw materials in stainless steel include iron ore, nickel, chromium, silicon, among others. The majority of the materials involved in the alloy occur naturally. Therefore, the origins of stainless steel make it a sustainable countertop option. 
  1. The Manufacturing Process – Not Sustainable

    While steps are currently being taken to improve the production process  of stainless steel to lessen its harmful effects on the environment, fuel is still necessary to produce the extremely high temperatures that are essential for forming the steel alloy. The fuel used in stainless steel production is environmentally unfriendly, resulting in carbon dioxide and other emissions. Therefore, the production of stainless steel countertops has a significant carbon footprint and therefore is not sustainable.
  1. The Means of Transportation – Not Sustainable

    While stainless steel can be manufactured in the US, a majority of production occurs overseas. The US imports the majority of the stainless steel we use here, meaning it is shipped from abroad to the US.  This means that the steel produced overseas needs to be shipped here to the US, which is an environmentally costly endeavor, especially given that a large portion of it is imported. 
  1. The Packaging and Installation – Not Sustainable

    Stainless steel packaging and installation vary based on where they are being installed and who is installing them. Materials can be wrapped in plastic and other synthetic packaging materials. We recommend you reach out to your stainless steel vendor to find out how they pack and ship their products.
  1. The Maintenance Required – Sustainable

    Stainless steel countertops require relatively little maintenance. The primary thing to note for their maintenance is to frequently wipe the countertop of any water spills, as water left on the surface can eventually cause water spots. In general, no finishes are required to maintain a steel countertop, so it is sustainable to maintain. Additionally, its maintenance has less of a harmful to no harmful impact on your own health because of this.
  1. The Means of Disposal – Sustainable

    Stainless steel is extremely useful in that it can be recycled while maintaining most of its value and utility. Metal recyclers will take stainless steel and repurpose it without diminishing its value. In this process, it is first melted down and then shaped into the next desired product. This process is repeatable, as most of the original steel is preserved, so there is a lesser need for producing new stainless steel. As such, disposal of stainless steel is a sustainable process if you recycle or repurpose it.

Ceramic Tile Countertops

Ceramic tile sustainable countertop
Image via Cote Maison
  1. The Origins – Sustainable

    Ceramic tile is produced from natural clay sourced from the earth. Clay is an abundant material, although it is typically mined from a few select locations around the world. Different clay types are sourced from distinct sites, so choosing a clay that is sourced closer to where you live may help cut down on transportation emissions.
  1. The Manufacturing Process – Not Sustainable

    Clay is heated to extremely high temperatures in a kiln which are required to produce the ceramic tiles. Manufacturers use fossil fuels to support the thousand-degree fires necessary for this process, resulting in the emission of greenhouse gases. 
  1. The Means of Transportation – Not Sustainable 

    As mentioned above, different types of clay are mined and produced into various ceramics in different parts of the world. Their transportation is therefore not sustainable as it results in a carbon footprint from importing the ceramic tiles from abroad. 
  1. The Packaging and Installation – Not Sustainable

    Ceramic tile installation requires a host of materials, including those such as thinset mortar. This mortar contains silica. Silica particles are extremely toxic if breathed in, such that N95 masks are often recommended when handling this material. Further, some grout sealers used during installation are made of petroleum-based solvents, which are not sustainable. 
  1. The Maintenance Required – Sustainable

    Ceramic tiles can be sustainably maintained. Taking care to wash frequently with hot water and a brush is all that is necessary to maintain ceramic tile countertops. 
  1. The means of disposal – Sustainable

    Certain recycling plants will accept ceramic tiles, meaning that they can be disposed of sustainably. Ceramic tile has a long lifespan, so unwanted tile can also be donated to building reuse organizations or other charities to be reused.

A Note on PaperStone, A Sustainable Countertop Option

Image via Remodelista

PaperStone countertops are made of recycled paper and petroleum free resin. Comparable to steel in its strength, PaperStone is one of the most unique surfacing options out there, and is a great option if you are interested in a sustainable countertop.  Diverting millions of pounds of paper from landfills, this versatile material comes in multiple sizes and thicknesses, so it can be optimized for your project.  It can be cut on site, and is a DIY or remodeler’s ideal material.  It is easily cut with woodworking tools but holds up like stone.  A matte, organic finish makes it a natural choice and great alternative to glossy stone finishes.

“A critical part of designing responsibly is considering the longevity of the material in relation to the lifecycle and locality of the project. If you’re designing something you know will be updated in five years, then I would suggest that this isn’t the best place to use marble. But if you’re using marble as a core material, such as the floor or walls of a building, then I would argue that it is, potentially, sustainable.”

Pro Tip: If you do replace your countertops at some point, consider these options before you throw them away.

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Interior Designer Andrea Durcik Columbus Ohio

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Traveling, animals, and all things design encompass Andrea’s life, fueling her creative energy every step of the way.

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