In the past 15 years, granite counter tops have started to represent class and elegance in US kitchens. People are ripping out functional wooden and laminated counter tops and replacing them with polished granite slabs. The annual spend in the US on these slabs is estimated to be between $1.2 billion and $1.6 billion. An enormous quantity of granite, around $60 a square foot, is being pulled out from the earth for fitment into US kitchens.
Granite is available in various colors. It can be polished to a high gloss, is extremely hard and stain resistant, does not chip or crack easily, and can withstand high temperatures. It is available in large sizes that can be cut to suit the need and avoids the cement grout joints that mar appearance.
The concerned homeowner however need to ask a question if the use of granite is eco-friendly and the answer, unfortunately, is no. Granite has a large environmental footprint through its process from mining and transport to cutting and polishing when compared to other available alternatives.
Granite is non-renewable
Granite was formed millions of years ago by the cooling of magma. These rocks form much of the continental crust around the world. The surface rocks have been weathered into soil over the years and the usable rock formations now exist several hundred meters below the earth. Granite is found in hundreds of different colors around the world depending on the other minerals that were trapped into the magma. These entrapped minerals give not just varying colors but also patterns like streaks and waves that makes the granite extremely attractive for use as a building material.
While there are billions of tons of granite in the earth’s crust, the material is non-renewable. Once mined and extracted, there is no possibility of nature replenishing the granite except perhaps when there is volcanic activity.
The mining process is disruptive of nature
Granite is mined from large open cast quarries. Once a granite reserve is located, all vegetation and top soil is cleared and the granite formation is fractured by drilling holes and using explosives. Large blocks of granite weighing up to 10 tons are chiseled out for processing. Barely 10 percent of the granite can be extracted as usable blocks for processing with the rest abandoned as rubble. These open cast mines extend over several acres and remain a permanent scar on the earth’s surface. Winds carry the mining dust and deposit them over croplands and housing communities. Rainwater carries minerals exposed by the mining process into underground aquifers and pollutes rivers and lakes. Such mining often targets natural hill formations causing irreversible changes in topography, which then affects weather and rainfall patterns.
Granite blocks are transported over long distances adding to their environmental burden
Granite blocks are extracted as large rectangular blocks weighing several tons each. These blocks are transported by trucks to factory locations for processing. The difference between the cost at extraction point and its end use price makes it possible for granite blocks mined in South America to be transported by sea to China for cutting into slabs and polishing and then being shipped to the US for end sale. This transportation imposes a large carbon footprint on the granite slab that finally fits over your kitchen counter.
Few types of granite give out radioactive emissions
Some types of granite, especially those mined in Brazil and Namibia, have been found to have traces of uranium entrapped in them. Counter tops made from this granite give off a radioactive gas named radon that has been measured to increase the radiation to 100 picocuries per liter of air from the safe limit of 4 picocuries per liter. This finding is disputed by the building materials industry, which considers the radiation hazard from granite to be much smaller than the radiation a person receives on a single airplane flight of three or four hours. A radioactive source, however mild, is an understandable cause for concern. Some homeowners are now getting the slabs tested for radiation before installing them in their kitchens. Some lawyers are beginning to talk of class-action lawsuits against the granite industry.
Environment friendly alternatives to granite
For the concerned homeowner, there are several alternatives to granite. One is, of course, stainless steel, which has been extensively used in commercial kitchens and fast food counters. Stainless steel falls short of granite mainly in scratch resistance. It is difficult to keep stainless steel surfaces scratch free. Several new types of materials are now available as attractive environment friendly alternatives to granite and at lower prices. One category is called “solid surface” and is made of various mineral powders bonded with acrylic or other polymers. Another material is called Paperstone, which is made from recycled paper bonded with resin. Glass including recycled glass is also becoming a popular alternative.
Granite counter tops do look elegant and meet the expectations of a high gloss, easy to maintain surface that is needed for a counter top. The mining and transport of granite for making the counter tops, however, have too large an environmental footprint for the homeowner to ignore. A number of alternatives are available that can serve to achieve the function without imposing a penalty on the environment.