Are you thinking about new counter tops? There is no perfect surface material for every use and budget, but we can learn a lot about the healthiest and most sustainable options by looking at the raw materials and how each type of surface is glued or melded together.
By Brent Ehrlich – Excerpted from Building Green’s – Environmental Building News / Vol 21 No 10
Countertops and other horizontal surfaces are used in everything from residential kitchen counters to hospital desks. They have to stand up to damage caused by pens, accumulated dirt, hot pans, liquids that penetrate and stain, cleaning chemicals, nail-polish remover, and disinfectants—and we want them to look good, too. There is no perfect surface material for every use and budget, but we can learn a lot about the healthiest and most sustainable options by looking at the raw materials and how each type of surface is glued or melded together.
High-pressure laminates (HPLs), such as those from Formica or Wilsonart, are some of the most common—and cheapest—surface materials. They are made from kraft paper impregnated with melamine (MF) or phenol formaldehyde (PF) binders with a decorative layer placed on top; the entire sandwich is pressed under heat until it crosslinks and fuses together into a thin thermoset plastic. The HPL is then adhered to particleboard or MDF panels.
The paper and panels used in HPLs are usually high in recycled content and may have content certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), but formaldehyde, which is also found in some panel substrates, is a known carcinogen. The melamine and phenol formaldehyde, which offgas much less than urea formaldehyde, are purportedly transformed by the manufacturing process into an inert material, resulting in extremely low emissions from the final product—many HPLs meet CDPH Standard Method emissions requirements, and Wilsonart meets California’s more rigid residential standard—but some building projects are seeking to avoid any use of formaldehyde in interior products.
Baltix’s BioSurf is an alternative to formaldehyde-based laminates. It uses a biobased polymer made from 100% soybean and corn adhered to no-added-formaldehyde MDF. The graphics, including faux wood designs, are printed onto the back of a thick, clear wear layer using a large-format printer. The wear layer provides more wear, scratch, impact, and stain resistance than standard HPLs, based on third-party testing, and the graphics can be custom designed to include logos or specific colors.
Like HPLs, composite surfaces such as PaperStone, Richlite, and EcoTop are also made from paper or wood fibers and PF or MF binders, but they are available in a number of thicknesses and are not laminated to wood cores. The paper and wood fiber are typically 100% post-consumer recycled content or FSC-certified, though EcoTop also contains bamboo fiber. The amount of resin in these products is significant (up to 50% of the final product), but PaperStone adds some resin made from cashew, and 50% of EcoTop’s resin is derived from cashew-nut hulls and corn. These products require sealing and should be protected from prolonged water exposure.
Glass composites use pre- and post-consumer recycled glass or porcelain along with a binder—usually portland cement-based—which provides the countertops with a stone-like look. Some of these products, such as ecoX by Meld, contain more than 70% post-consumer glass by volume. Some glass composites in this category also use epoxy, which contains the endocrine disruptor bisphenol-A and is best avoided. Eco by Cosentino uses a polyester resin (22% biobased from corn) along with recycled content that comes from windshields, bottles, porcelain, stone scrap, and industrial byproducts. And Bio-Glass contains no resins at all and is 100% recycled glass, melted together under heat and pressure; though there are no hazardous indoor emissions, the product requires additional energy to produce.
Solid surface materials
Solid surface materials, such as Corian, are made from either acrylic or polyester resins and have to conform to an ANSI- approved performance standard. Non-porous and homogenous, they can be sanded and repaired if damaged and can be installed without seams. Most of these materials meet CDPH Standard Method emissions requirements. Manufacturers often tout the recycled content of solid surfaces, but it is almost always pre-consumer material from their own or similar facilities. Also, the manufacture of petroleum-based acrylics and polyesters uses styrene and other toxic chemicals. By environmental standards, the standout product in this category is 3form’s “100 Percent,” which is made from 100% post-consumer HDPE from milk bottles.
Wood is still a popular countertop material, and there are plenty of FSC-certified and reclaimed wood products available. (Note that stone and tile are durable and low-emitting but have sustainability issues of their own, which we’ll look at in a future article.) One company, TorZo, is manufacturing several products made from wheat, sorghum, hemp, or FSC-certified MDF. According to Jeff Southwell, vice president of operations at TorZo, “We infuse an acrylic polymer into the boards, which improves the hardness and durability.” These products are popular for their natural look, and some are very strong and durable. The FSC-certified Indure product, for example, has a hardness of 7,700 lbs (maple is 1,800 lbs), as measured by the Janka test, making it a good fit for commercial applications.
Choosing a product
Chemical emissions and content, and use of recycled content or other environmentally responsible materials, should be factors when selecting any horizontal surface material, but all such materials are fairly costly and consume significant energy to produce. The greenest countertop will be the one still in the building years from now, so select a product that matches the end use so it will stand the test of time. The standout products listed here are a good place to start that search.