Check Footprint — and Writer’s Foot, Too

Spend more than a few minutes searching the ‘Net, and you’ll find plenty of people offering advice on choosing countertops from an ethical and sustainable standpoint.

And, after reading them, I’d be glad to give my own counsel: Go out and learn something about countertops and material origins. Please.

em hed shot 2 Granite and other stones don’t do well on the various grading scales of sustainability, due mainly to non-renewability of material, long lines of intercontinental transport and the perception that used stone materials head straight for the landfill.

So what’s on the correct list of materials? You’ll find a cornucopia of suggestions, although most center on quartz surfaces, cementious slabs and all sorts of products incorporating recycled items, including fly ash for concrete countertops.

Sure, in the sustainability game, stone has its drawbacks. But to hear some of the arguments against it, many of these ‘Net experts offer plenty of their own bias that I can only attribute to ignorance, stupidity or just plain talking out of their hats.

Yes, it’s going to take eons for the earth to replace the natural stone being quarried today. However, unlike fossil fuels, natural stone is being used, not consumed, and the known deposits of natural stone will likely meet world needs for more than a millennium (and whether we’ll need countertops then is anyone’s guess).

Natural stone is a material quarried and shipped worldwide. Much of the green grumbling comes from the carbon footprint, as in the amount of diesel fuel expended to quarry and ship. Nobody’s denying that stone requires energy to process and transport – but what about other hard surfaces?

It’s amazing how some online commentators name quartz as a green alternative without a) recognizing the heady energy needs of thermoforming the slabs, or b) realizing the transportation issues from the factory in offering up names like Caesarstone® (Israel), Silestone® (Spain) or Technistone® (Czech Republic). (Curiously, few mention Cambria in the same light, even though it’s U.S.-made)

And, to be fair, nobody seems to acknowledge the carbon footprint of recycled materials. It’s great that broken bottles or pre-consumer scrap isn’t going to landfills, but the reused materials still carries an environmental impact from initial manufacturing. If you’re going to howl about stone’s travel from quarry to kitchen, you need to acknowledge the process of obtaining and preparing recycled components.

It also seems like the online crowd can’t mention concrete countertops without chiming in about using fly ash (residue from coal combustion) as the wise green alternative to Portland cement. And, it’s a great idea, as long as you want concrete showing those dull flat grays of Brezhnev-era slapdash Soviet apartment blocks.

Go to the Concrete Countertop Institute, for example, and you’ll find other alternatives (such as metakaolin) to pare down the use of Portland cement and still offer better color maintenance. Finding this out might taken 10 minutes or so on the Web, but it’s a lot easier to use the green chic term of something like, well, fly ash.

There’s also plenty of life for stone in downcycling, or the continuing use of materials after the original job is done. Granite can be crushed to varying degrees for fill, outdoor decorative aggregate or tinting of mixed materials like concrete, or cut for custom tiles and pavers. That’s a larger afterlife than most green countertop materials – but the online consensus is that you either can have old tops cut for small end-table surfaces or just chucked in the dumpster.

Stone isn’t the perfect material in the sustainable market, although it’s gotten a bad rap from too many people who’d look very unhip if they didn’t take cheap potshots … and then froth over products and materials with unproven track records or not much more green credibility.

And the real losers? Try the consumers who find this stuff on the ‘Net and think they’re reading thought-out, in-depth advice. Poor folks. And, in the end, poor us, too.

Emerson Schwartzkopf

You can read up-to-the-minute news on the dimensional-stone trade and search the archives at Stone Business Online.

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