Hey Mr. Green,
What's the most environmentally friendly counter top for the kitchen?
–Pat in Redrock, OklahomaThis is an extraordinarily difficult question because the materials used are so different and have such different impacts on the environment. The length of time a counter will survive before it has to be replaced is also an important factor. So, while ceramic tile might require more energy to produce than, say, recycled wood, its extreme longevity gives it some environmental advantage over wood. My favorite authority on green home topics, the U.S. Green Building Council, notes that traditional ceramic tile and natural linoleum can be green options, while plastics have some serious drawbacks.
To help in your choice, you can consult the USGBC's list of countertops that are made with at least 20 percent recyclable materials such as glass, wood, and even paper, or from wood harvested from certified forests, natural linoleum, and bamboo at this link. You might also take a look at the GBS's "Buyer’s Guide to Green Countertop Materials" and "Choosing a Green Countertop that Works with Your Style and Your Life."
Yes, this last "life" concern is important, and because aesthetics are involved, I would hesitate to prescribe a counter on strictly environmental grounds even if somebody did come up with an infallibly green rating system. It's important to like the way things look. So one wonders: Can ugliness cause collateral damage to the environment? Do people rendered restless, irritable, and discontent by their immediate environment go out and buy Hummers to fill an aesthetic and spiritual void? Would the world be a better place if the Cathedral of Notre Dame or the Taj Mahal or other famous edifices had been built like utilitarian, efficiently constructed warehouses? Are soulless shopping malls really crypto marketing devices, the sheer banality of which drives us to drive more and more to buy more and more stuff? How has our sense of architectural beauty affected our relation to nature? What if John Muir hadn't compared mountains to marvelous temples, or Bob Dylan hadn't sung of the wild cathedral evening?
In sum, is a counter top merely a functional culinary workbench, or a path to philosophical inquiry?