Stone, wood, composites, and other solid surface materials all have different environmental and health impacts. Select the surface that meets the design objectives, meets health and environmental criteria, and has the greatest durability. Hard natural stone, such as slate from certified, sustainably managed quarries and processors, offers the best combination of durability, low maintenance, and environmental and health performance. Plastic products engineered so scratches can be sanded out are popular and versatile, but they are mostly virgin plastic and are not recommended.
In general, look for those that have Cradle to Cradle Silver or Gold certifications, are Declare Red List free, and are third-party certified for low emissions using CDPH Standard Method. We also prefer wood products with FSC certification or from sustainably reclaimed sources.
- Watch out for products with formaldehyde-based resins that do not meet CDPH Standard Method emissions requirements.
- Coatings or sealants used on some stone or composite countertops can contain high VOCs or PFAS compounds.
- Wood products may not come from sustainably managed forests.
- Some stone comes from quarries or processors without sustainability protocols, especially those shipped long distances for processing.
- Care has to be taken when installing engineered stone and some natural stone since they can emit silica dust when cut.
- Plastic composites may not meet durability requirements and are rarely recycled.
- The binder in some glass composites is made from Portland cement, which has a large carbon footprint.
Stone was one of our first building materials and continues to play an important role in today’s green building industry. Stone requires almost no chemicals to produce or maintain. It also:
- emits no VOCs or hazardous airborne pollutants
- is naturally water resistant
- has a long lifespan
- can be salvaged from one building to be reused or repurposed in another
But stone has some environmental challenges.
Quarrying stone disrupts the landscape and can create noise, occasional runoff of solids, and scrap piles at the surface. Stone is also very heavy and is often moved thousands of miles for processing, adding to the environmental footprint.
But unlike mining, which removes enormous quantities of materials from the earth in order to concentrate key elements, there is much less waste and no concentration of toxic materials.
With proper management and best practices, quarry impacts can be minimized, and at the end of production most quarries can be repurposed, filled in using waste from production to create useable land, or, in some cases, made into lakes.
Buying locally quarried and processed stone minimizes transportation energy consumption and helps create a connection to the local landscape.
Composite surfaces are made from paper or wood fibers—including FSC-certified content—and melamine (MF) or phenol formaldehyde (PF) binders that crosslink together into a thermoset plastic composite. Unlike urea formaldehyde, these resins have low emissions once cured. They are available in different thicknesses and are not laminated to wood cores.
There may not be as much paper or wood fiber in these products as you might assume, with resins sometimes comprising 50% of the final product by weight, but some contain biobased resins.
Glass composites use pre- and post-consumer recycled glass and/or porcelain along with a Portland cement-based binder. Some glass composites contain biobased resins, but avoid those that use epoxy, which contains the endocrine disruptor bisphenol-A.
Engineered stone surfaces are made from stone, polyester resins, and filler. Quartz surfaces are extremely durable, and BuildingGreen recommends those products that meet CDPH Standard Method emissions requirements, have NSF/ANSI 51 food contact safety certification, and contain post-consumer recycled materials or have other environmental benefits. Note that production and installation of quartz products can pose a serious silicosis risk, so we prefer manufacturers that monitor working conditions and provide dust controls. BuildingGreen does not recommend products that contain antimicrobials.
Acrylic and polyester solid surfaces
Solid surface materials are made from either acrylic or polyester resins and conform to ANSI-approved performance standards. Non-porous and homogenous, they can be sanded and repaired if damaged and can be installed without seams. From a sustainability standpoint, they are mostly virgin plastic and there is little to differentiate these products. BuildingGreen does not list acrylic/polyester solid surfaces at this time.
There are plenty of wood and rapidly renewable surface products available, so look for those using:
- FSC-certified wood
- reclaimed wood
- rapidly renewable, low-emitting bamboo, cork, or hemp that use low-emitting binders