Your recycled countertop can be a slab of salvaged stone or a post-consumer waste composite. Green alternatives are plentiful, attractive and stand up well to wear and tear. Best of all, they look like "normal" countertops --- no one will mistake your expensive kitchen remodel for a DIY project. The best countertops take into consideration a product's entire lifecycle: they are made from low-impact, recycled materials; they use lower amounts of energy to process than their standard counterparts; they produce minimal transportation-related emissions; and they can be recycled or reused when they are no longer useful. (See References 4)
Recycled glass tiles can contain as much as 100 percent post-consumer content. They are stain- and scratch-resistant, install just like regular tiles and require little maintenance. If you choose tiles with integral color, meaning the tile is the same color all the way through, chips and scratches will be less noticeable.Tile countertops do not provide a solid surface, however, and porous grout lines must be sealed periodically to prevent staining, making glass tiles more suitable for a bathroom counter than a kitchen one. (See References 1)
Just about all metals are easily recycled and rolled into new sheets suitable for countertops. The nonporous surface is stain-resistant, but some metals are prone to denting and heat damage. Stainless steel is a popular option in modern kitchens, but copper, bronze or brass can provide a warmer, more rustic look. According to nonprofit sustainable building organization Build It Green, most metal products contain at least 50 percent recycled material. (See References 2, page 7)
Milk jugs, water bottles and detergent bottles can be recycled to make countertops that mimic the look and performance of solid-surface resins (see References 3). Some manufacturers even use pre-consumer plastic waste generated by the manufacture of their other products (see References 2, page 5). Installation requires no VOC-emitting adhesives, and the material off-gases very few fumes. These surfaces are very durable, but may feel "plasticky," according to the American Institute of Architects (see References 3).
Pure concrete countertops are decidedly unsustainable --- the material requires much energy to quarry and transport. However, some manufacturers replace up to half of the cement with recycled byproducts --- fly ash or slag --- thereby reducing the energy footprint of the product. You can add recycled glass or stone chips to make terazzo, thereby reducing the actual cement content even further. When shopping for a concrete countertop, look for a product with the highest post-consumer content you can find. (See References 2, page 7)
Paper may seem like an unlikely countertop material, but it forms the basis of two distinct surfaces. Paper composite is a mixture of recycled paper and resin, and may be certified sustainable by the Forest Stewardship Council and contain up to 100 percent post-consumer content (see References 3). Paper can also be processed into pulp and combined with cement to produce fiber cement (see References 2, page 5).
Angela Brady has been writing since 1997. Currently transitioning to a research career in oncolytic virology, she has won awards for her work related to genomics, proteomics, and biotechnology. She is also an authority on sustainable design, having studied, practiced and written extensively on the subject.