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Redo Your Kitchen in Green
If you’re building a new home or updating an older one and want to go green wherever you can, you’ve got more options than ever in eco-chic materials for countertops, flooring and cabinets. Here’s a quick guide to eco-friendly kitchen materials — including five favorites of eco-design experts, plus top materials to avoid.
Thumbs Up: 5 Eco-Optimal Options
Recycled glass: “Recycled glass is one of my favorite things to use for countertops,” says environmental design consultant Michelle Bexelius. “It’s so beautiful and comes in so many colors.” Look for glass tile that is 100 percent recycled, either from post-industrial or post-consumer sources.
PaperStone: It’s a pretty cool concept — paper that’s pressed into a stonelike material. It’s strong and workable like stone, but made from recycled paper. PaperStone comes in various colors and uses no petroleum products. “I really love this stuff,” Bexelius says. It’s ideal for countertops — or anywhere else you would use stone. Find a dealer through Paperstoneproducts.net
Bamboo: Don’t be fooled by bamboo’s stick-like appearance in the forest — it’s an extremely hard and durable material that's ideal for countertops, cabinets or flooring. Bamboo's eco-friendly status comes from the fact that it’s a completely renewable resource — it grows amazingly fast. Also check out other sustainably harvested wood flooring options, such as cork oak.
Marmoleum: This natural flooring material is made from linseed oil, wood flour, rosin, jute and limestone. “It’s a great alternative to traditional linoleum flooring,” says Bexelius.
Natural plaster: Skip the dry-wall mud and the VOCs (volatile organic compounds) found in conventional paints. This fume-free wall finishing alternative, also known as earth plaster, is made from natural clay and pigments in a range of earthy colors. It goes directly on almost any material including dry wall, wood, adobe, straw bale or masonry. You can texture it as you like or leave it smooth. Either way you get an organic-looking finished effect that's far more interesting than the homogeneous wall mud sold at home improvement stores.
Thumbs Down: 4 Materials to Avoid
Particleboard: “Do not use particleboard for cabinets,” cautions Debra Lynn Dadd, author of "Home Safe Home: Creating a Healthy Home Environment by Reducing Exposure to Toxic Household Products." “It emits formaldehyde, which can make your eyes water and cause rashes.” It’s also a suspected human carcinogen. Cabinet-grade plywood is a better alternative, and custom-made solid wood cabinets (preferably reclaimed wood) are the best option, Dadd says.
Imported Materials: “Try to source materials as locally as possible,” Dadd says. The material itself isn’t usually the problem; after all, products like marble and granite are natural stone — usually a good choice. “But it’s all about how you get it here,” she says. Shipping granite from Italy, for example, uses a tremendous amount of fuel and other resources. Check with local kitchen remodeling stores and services to see if they have some decent-sized hunks of scrap stone that can work for your project.
Toxic glues, grouts and stains: Even the most eco-friendly product gets tainted if high-VOC products are used to adhere or finish it. Follow the process through and make sure you specify low-VOC products. Ask your builder or your local hardware store about the most environmentally friendly options, such as nontoxic glues, low-VOC tile adhesive and polymer-free grout. Using polymers does help prevent mold, so be sure to use an eco-friendly sealant in their place. And use natural materials — like beeswax to seal bamboo — whenever possible, Bexelius says.
Wood from non-sustainable forests: Hardwood is a wonderful natural material, but deforestation concerns make it important to do your homework. Contact the lumberyard, the manufacturer or your contractor and start asking questions. “Be your own reporter; find out if the wood is coming from a sustainably managed forest,” Bexelius says. “Are the trees being replanted? If not, don’t buy it.”
More Tips to Keep Your Project Green
Give salvage yards a chance. “You can get amazing deals at salvage yards, especially if you want to find materials that match the period and style of your older home,” Dadd says. She’s found wonderful pieces of marble that have been salvaged from old buildings — enough to do all her kitchen countertops. “You’re giving old materials a new life,” she says.
Use less when you can. Dadd has no upper doors on her kitchen cabinets. “It’s just open shelving. I like to see what’s in there — plus, it saves on materials costs,” she says. Open shelving may not work for you, but try to find other ways to cut down on material usage if you can, or look for ways to creatively repurpose an older piece.
Think twice about trashing fixtures you rip out. If something can be recycled or kept in circulation (such as through a donation), that’s great. But when you’re dealing with hazardous materials — like that old particleboard or fluorescent lights — you need to dispose of them properly, Bexelius says. “Don’t just stick them out in the trash. Drop them off at your local hazardous waste collection spot,” she says. Don’t know where that is? Call your city or county or try websites like Freecycle.org and Earth911.org to find dropoff sites for hard to recycle items.