These are the seven most affordable eco-friendly countertops. Some are low or zero-VOC just as they are, and others need modifications like sealing in offgassing to make them healthy and safe options.
Many are affordable right off the shelf, but some are only going to be cheap if you do it yourself. It’s always going to save money to cut and install any countertop yourself, but some options involve making the entire countertop and are very labor-intensive.
Many will only be low cost if you already have the tools needed.
I will go over each one in detail – outlining the chemicals and offgassing and just how “green’ they are, where to source them, how much work is needed, and how much it will cost.
The focus is on kitchen counters but many of these options are used in bathrooms as well as for islands and tabletops.
- Starting with the least expensive but highest offgassing option, laminate comes in at as low as $50.
- Solid butcher block starts at $150.
- A solid wood slab could be as low as the mill cost if you have the wood.
- DIY concrete as low as $200 if you have tools, supplies, and labor.
- A tiled countertop can be as low as $130 if you have tools and labor.
- Richlite is the lowest cost of the high-end solid surface slabs at $637 if you can cut it yourself.
- Tadelakt, a very labor-intensive material can be as low as $75 in materials, not including tools.
- Lastly, bonus option, salvaged stone, solid surface, and wood countertops can be found at repurposing stores for between $45 – $250.
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Starting with the least expensive (but highest offgassing) material on this list, laminate countertops can be an option – with some amendments for those building a healthy home.
Now, the extremely sensitive may not want to go with this option at all, but with some airing out to offgas it, and some sealing in VOCs, this can be a reasonable option for many people.
Laminate countertops are made with a base of plywood or MDF. Both offgas formaldehyde – structural plywood offgases very low levels (and not for long), while MDF offgasses higher levels for longer.
Companies like Formica that make the laminate top layer recommend MDF as the best substrate, but it’s very common to use plywood.
The top layer of the laminate is the melamine layer. Formica is the best-known brand but not the only one. The underside of the melamine is a paper product pressed together that does offgas some formaldehyde. The melamine top layer does essentially block this offgassing through the top.
The two parts are attached with contact cement.
Steps to make this a healthier option:
- Offgas the plywood or MDF layer in a basement, garage, or other clean area that is not too cold nor too humid. You can leave this for as long as you need to reduce the offgassing. I would give plywood a few days to a few weeks. Others would go longer.
- Have a healthy person attach the melamine to the substrate with contact cement. You may want to make a small sample first to see it. Offgas this for as long as you need to. I like to give that a couple of weeks.
- Now seal up the underside with Bullseye Shellac or AFM Safecoat Safeseal to seal in the formaldehyde in the wood product.
- Make sure to use a healthy glue to attach this to the cabinets below. I like AFM Almighty Adhesive.
You can also use shellac or Safeseal under a countertop that comes already made like an IKEA laminate countertop, or even one that is already installed.
I like the IKEA ready-made option since the contact cement will be well cured and you only need to seal the underside.
I tested this whole system out in the video below and found that this would be a reasonable solution for those who are not too sensitive to chemicals or for whom this is the only option in the budget:
A 6 ft laminate countertop from IKEA starts at $50.
Large sheets of laminate (5 x 12 feet) cost $100 to $300 each. It’s $30 for each 4 x 8 foot sheet of MDF, plus contact cement.
Installation is rather easy for the DIY-er.
Lifespan is 10-15 years.
2. Butcher Block
Butcher block countertops are another very affordable option.
Most butcher block slabs are solid wood pieces glued together. Wood glues are usually acceptable for most chemically sensitive folks. They are low-VOC and they do not take too long to cure. The most extremely sensitive should always check this out in person first.
Like with laminate, you could also give it some time to offgas before installing it. However, for many people, it will be at an acceptable level right away (or very soon).
I like the unfinished options from Home Depot – they are solid wood and you can choose your own sealer.
Some butcher block countertops are not solid all the way through. They might be a wood veneer with particleboard underneath. This type is less durable and does offgas formaldehyde.
IKEA Butcher Block countertops are a veneer with particleboard underneath.
Non-Toxic Food Safe Sealers For Wood Countertops
If you prefer to use a natural sealer for food prep areas of the counter you could with a natural oil like linseed or tung oil instead. You can also use Bioshield Herbal Oil #2 or AFM Safecoat Naturals Clear Penetrating Oil.
The most durable natural finishes are tung oil or a linseed with a wax finish on top.
A 6 ft solid wood butcher block wooden countertop from Home Depot ranges in price from $150 to $380 depending on the wood species.
A 6 ft veneer/particle board countertop from IKEA starts at $150, a 4.5 ft bamboo solid wood countertop is $120.
Installation is not too hard to do yourself, money savings there too potentially.
Lifespan – it can last 20 years. They do need to be re-sealed often and sanded down when they get marks.
3. Solid Wood Slab
I have seen a lot of solid slab wood countertops with the “live edge” in the natural building communities where I used to live.
While they are not generally low cost if you buy one that is already made, some folks who do have access to free or affordable wood or a local mill might find that if this is DIY (or partially DIY) it can be an affordable option.
One local friend bought hers from a guy who salvages wood. Their counter was a slab that was sitting in a guy’s garage for over 40 years. They cut and sealed it themselves. They got a good deal this way.
Others have had access to raw wood on their property and taken it to a mill to cut it to size.
The cost would certainly depend on your access to the tools, raw wood, local mills, or connections with local woodworkers or salvage workers.
It’s possible to do this for under $500 even if you have to buy the wood.
4. DIY Concrete
Concrete countertops are becoming very popular. If you do it yourself it can certainly be affordable, though it is fairly labor-intensive. If you don’t use many additives it certainly is a simple and healthy material to use in the home.
This is a non-toxic countertop mix that does not contain fly ash, vinyl, or latex. (Fly ash should always be avoided in concrete products as it contains toxic metals and can contain radioactive elements.)
You could use white sand, pigments, and other non-toxic concrete stains to get different looks. Colorants should be non-aniline dyes, free of toxic metals. Mineral pigments free of toxic metals outlined here can be used to add integral color.
“Green” Food Safe Sealers
Odies Oil and Daddy Vans also make “non-toxic” oil and wax concrete sealers, but they do not disclose all of their ingredients.
The countertops need to be resealed regularly just like real stone.
There are lots of videos on how to make these, but a DIY concrete counter could be prone to cracks if you are not careful. The fewer additives you use the more prone it is to cracking so there is a trade-off there.
The cracks are difficult to repair in a non-toxic way.
The cost of the materials can be as low as $200 if you already have access to some of the tools.
Most people would probably need to spend more like $400.
This is a good option for those who are chemically sensitive. It’s also one of the most accessible options all around the world.
Safe Eco-Friendly Grout
The challenge is that the safe concrete-based grout is not what is normally used for a tiled countertop. Because these grouts are so porous it’s easy to get grime, food, oil, and possibly mold in the grout.
Most people use more toxic grouts like epoxy or urethane grout for this application.
Those concerned with chemical offgassing or those with limited access to materials in developing countries do use concrete-based grout.
You could add a densifier and a sealer. Some chemically sensitive folks use concrete-based grout and then seal it to make it more durable because this is safe and inexpensive way to do it. Mike Holmes actually recommends not sealing grout anywhere including countertops so that if it gets very wet the mortar and grout can dry out easily.
A good non-toxic tile sealer is AFM Grout Sealer. This is a densifier though, so it’s not a really durable finish. But it’s very benign.
A more durable sealer for the grout would be Earthpaint’s NanoTech.
Use a darker colored grout – this will last longer and hold up better to stains and dirt. If you match the grout color to the tile color it can look sleek and modern.
A very light concrete-based grout will not hold up well nor retain its light color as it gets dirty over time.
Not Just Old Fashioned
Check out this black tile with black grout.
Another very modern look is to match the backsplash and countertop tiles.
Lead in Tiles?
Many porcelain and ceramic tiles do contain lead. For more information on testing them see this article. You can also ask the company to see test results.
Generally, tiles are no longer a risk when they are on the wall or floor. But since countertop tiles will come into contact with food, and could much more conceivably leach lead in this situation, I would ask for test results or test them yourself with an XRF gun.
Tiles themselves can be very inexpensive or very expensive. You can find many ceramic and porcelain options for $2 – $3 per square foot. High-end porcelain, real stone, and glass will run higher, possibly much higher.
Your tile cost could be as low as $56. The cheapest way to do this would be to use end bits and bobs from other jobs and do a mosaic look. You could get tiles for free that way.
Plywood is often used as the substrate ($30 a sheet), though technically you should use backer board.
Your grout and thinset could cost as little as $25 (for both).
The total cost could be as low as $130 not including tools.
Among the solid surface and engineered countertops, this one can be the most affordable in that category. Though it is the priciest one on this list!
The reason it’s more affordable than other comparable countertops is that it can be cut yourself with the right tools. Other popular choices like quartz must be professionally cut and installed which raises the price substantially.
Richlite (pictured above) is paper-based, claims zero-VOC, and is fairly light.
Paper composite countertops are made with phenol-formaldehyde as the main resin. Though there is some misrepresentation by some vendors, it’s not hard to find the documents for Richlite and PaperStone indicating formaldehyde as the resin.
Both big brands claim the final product contains no detectable formaldehyde and emits no VOCs. I have found that these brands do offgas formaldehyde when new, but they do make progress rather quickly, depending on the thickness. A thin piece only took a few days and a thicker slab can take a few weeks (or more).
I would still use this product in my home because the offgassing is minor and will come to a completion.
You can seal these countertops with Soapstone sealer (I tried it and it worked really well).
Richlite also makes their own oil/wax as well as a polyurethane finish. I’m not as big of a fan of those.
A 1/2 inch slab that is 4 x 8 ft is $637.
You will need a specialized blade to do the installation yourself.
If you have seams, they are glued with epoxy glue just like stone counters.
Soapstone sealer is $16.
Tadelakt counters are a unique and beautiful option that are totally natural and safe.
They are made almost entirely of natural materials. Tadelakt is a traditional finish from Morocco that provides a natural waterproof finish to the lime plaster base.
For countertops, the base under the plaster is plywood.
It generally is made in a darker color because it is susceptible to staining. Many use a wooden edge, as the plaster edge is vulnerable, though I have seen many made with the plaster edge.
It’s more likely to be used as a bathroom countertop since it’s less likely to take a lot of wear and tear and be stained there.
The finish requires upkeep that does take elbow grease.
Here’s a really handy cheat sheet for earthen countertops. Although it’s very labor-intensive, if you do it yourself it’s also very affordable.
Here is another photo of what it can look like.
Lime, calcium carbonate, and sand are needed with an olive oil soap burnished in. The burnishing takes a very long time.
The materials would roughly be $30 for lime plaster with calcium carbonate and $15 for soap. You also need a polishing stone and other tools.
Tadelakt requires some skill so you will want to learn how to do this and practice first. It’s certainly not an easy beginner’s DIY project. You will want to get this book, watch some videos and practice on a small sample first.
It requires a plywood base which is around $30.
While the materials themselves may be as low as $75, with all the tools needed (if you don’t have them) it can bring this to $300.
Bonus Option: Salvaged and Offcut Countertops
At salvage and repurpose stores, you can find slabs of real stone, solid surface materials like Corian, Paperstone, as well as solid wood slabs, and other options.
The costs I have seen run from $45 to $250. They tend to come in odd sizes. They may have damage and need to be re-cut.
This is definitely a way to get a really good deal.
While some materials are porous and could have picked up fragrance, chemical cleaners, and other toxins, generally only the very chemically sensitive would have to be really careful here.
If it’s real stone it’s likely that a chemical sealer was used in the past, it’s unlikely it was done any time recently. Check out the main countertop post to go over the sealers used on granite, marble, and other stones.
Look for a local re-use store near you. Second Use is an example of one in Seattle.
You might also be able to access a demolition more directly while they are selling off items in the building.
You can go to your local kitchen store and ask them about offcuts. I have seen some really nice pieces of stone purchased this way. I have seen a whole granite countertop done for $1500.
Corinne Segura is a Building Biologist Practitioner with 8 years of experience helping others create healthy homes.
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