Is Quartz Sustainable? An Honest Look at the Facts

Megan

Kitchen trends come and go. A 60s kitchen is easy to recognize with its groovy colors and bold patterns. A 90s kitchen can be defined by white appliances and light oak wood tones.

In the 2000s, these trends gave way to modern sophistication. Kitchen cabinets were designed with clean, straight lines, and appliances were swapped out for stainless steel variations.

As for the countertops, the popular choice quickly became granite. This natural stone dominated kitchen and bathroom design for a decade. However, there is a new challenger on the market.

That challenger is quartz.

Quartz has become a real contender for many home renovations. However, before you pick quartz, you probably want to know about its appearance, performance and environmental impact.

This article will cover the following points:

  • Overview of quartz
  • Benefits of quartz
  • Environmental impact of quartz
  • Comparisons to other countertops

Where Does Quartz Come From?

As you consider quartz countertops, it is important to understand quartz’s origin. Quartz is a natural mineral, which can be found in large quantities all over the planet.

Most people think that quartz is a stone, but it actually forms as a crystal. It has been mined for years and commonly used in applications outside of kitchens. In particular, it has been used for watch making and other electronics.

Quartz is widespread. It forms in all types of rock. When rocks are eroded over time, quartz is turned into sand or deposited in the soil as well. Most white sands are composed of quartz.

The mineral is naturally clear, but color variations do occur when imperfections are present. Common examples include the following:

  • Amethyst
  • Smoky quartz
  • Rose quartz
  • Citrine

While natural quartz is plentiful, its inherent imperfections make it less than desirable for manufacturing. This is why cultured, man-made quartz was developed. Up to 200 metric tons of cultured quartz are made each year.

How Are Quartz Countertops Made?

While it is possible to buy quarried slabs of quartz for your kitchen remodel, most quartz countertops are manufactured in another way. To make a standard countertop, the quartz is mined in small pieces and mixed with durable resins.

While it is being mixed, other pigments and stones may be added. This could include natural stone or glass. By adding these elements, it is possible to create a pattern within the surface.

In some cases, antibacterial properties are also added. This is intended to make the countertop ready for food preparation.

Once all the ingredients are included, industrial mixers are used to thoroughly blend. When the mixture is ready, it is poured into countertop molds. After this, the mixture must be baked. Finally, the hardened product is polished and ready for installation.

Quartz has been used for countertops since the 1980s. However, it only recently became a go-to kitchen trend. Modern quartz countertops contain 90 percent quartz.

What Are the Virtues of Quartz?

There is a reason quartz has gained so much popularity. As a material for countertops, it has many benefits.

Durability

Quartz is often touted by kitchen experts for its durability. While natural stone has a distinctive look, it is considered high maintenance when compared to laminate or solid surface alternatives.

Quartz, therefore, is a nice compromise. It has the look of stone, but it functions much more like a solid surface.

In fact, quartz is nearly indestructible. It is not prone to cracking or scratching.

Moreover, the surface is not porous like natural stone. Therefore, it will not stain, and it is very easy to clean.

It is not necessary to seal quartz countertops. No bacteria can penetrate its surface, which means that these countertops are also very sanitary.

Quartz is so durable that many manufacturers actually offer warranties on their quartz products. This is not possible with granite and other natural stones. Quartz holds up well with heat, abrasive cleanings, oils and more.

All in all, it is hard to find a material better suited for countertops than quartz.

Variety

Quartz’s popularity is not merely practical. Quartz has also become a kitchen mainstay because of its look.

The reason people gravitated to natural stone was its depth. The appearance of natural stone has movement, color variations and more. This makes stone far more attractive than laminate or solid surfaces.

Quartz does not have quite the same depth, but it certainly provides more movement than the alternatives. Quartz possesses a natural luster, which imbues the countertop with a three-dimensional appearance similar to natural stone.

Finally, because quartz is engineered, there are plenty of colors to consider. With granite and other natural stone, selection is limited. Therefore, quartz allows for superior customization.

Cost

Quartz is expensive. Given its advantages and high demand, putting quartz in your home will not be cheap.

In fact, quartz costs as much as most natural stones. You can expect to pay at least $60 per square foot. More expensive quartz may cost more than $90 per square foot. This price includes installation.

In this way, quartz is not the most affordable option. However, given its other virtues, many kitchen experts still think quartz may be one of the better values.

Is Quartz Sustainable?

quartz crystals

Clearly, there are plenty of reasons people like quartz countertops. However, functionality and appearance are not the only considerations. Sustainability is also important.

After all, your countertops do more than change the look of your home. The production, manufacturing and installation of your quartz countertops can leave an impact on the environment.

When looking at the sustainability of quartz, first consider its availability. Unlike granite or marble, which must be specially mined from specific locations, quartz is readily available throughout the world. In fact, it is the second most abundant mineral on the planet.

Therefore, there are ample quartz supplies, and its formation is prevalent. It forms between other rock formations either underground or in open cavities.

Because quartz is so easy to access, it is also easy to mine effectively. Accordingly, there are more local mines. This means quartz is not usually shipped from great distances, which reduces the environmental toll and boosts sustainability.

The sustainable advantages do not end there. When being processed, quartz does not need special handling. Therefore, fewer pieces are damaged or lost during the process, and waste is minimized.

Other benefits are longer lasting. Quartz endures longer than many other materials, and this means that it does not need to be replaced as often.

Quartz is also recyclable. Some quartz countertops are even made with post-consumer recycled glass.

In general, quartz is also regarded for its low emissions, and it can help contribute LEED points during a green building or redesign job.

Is Quartz Environmentally Friendly?

Clearly, much of what makes quartz sustainable also makes it good for the environment. There is less energy invested in the mining process because quartz is so abundant and does not have to be mined in slabs.

However, mining does pose some risk to the environment. Environmental studies document the air pollution linked to quartz mining. One study from the 1970s showed that quartz mining produced a significant amount of dust pollution.

This dust pollution was found at all points of transit. It was found during production and transportation. The most dangerous element of the dust included silica.

Moreover, while American mines must comply with various standards, it is hard to know what standards are being used in other parts of the world. When quartz is mined in its crystal form, its origin is hard to trace.

Without proper precautions, quartz mining can contaminate the water supply, contribute to air pollution and more.

It is fair to point these risks out, but they should also be taken in context. All mining comes with inherent risks. The fact that quartz is more sustainable than many other products on the market does minimize the overall environmental toll.

Is Quartz a Safe Material?

In general, quartz is safe for your home. Quartz countertops do not contain toxic chemicals, and all products for sale in the United States are NSF certified.

However, many quartz products do contain micro-ban. This is a antimicrobial that is added to prevent the growth of bacteria. While many regulating authorities have deemed this substance safe, there is still some debate on the topic.

The bigger concern for quartz comes during the manufacturing process. During the production of quartz, small crystalline dust is spread into the air. This is called silica. When workers are around silica dust, they inhale it.

Over time, this can affect the lungs and respiratory system. The result is a condition known as silicosis. Silicosis is a disease that limits the body’s ability to take in oxygen.

Patients with silicosis may need to be on supplemental oxygen. Others may need lung transplants. The disease is progressive and has no cure. In extreme cases, silicosis can lead to death.

Typically, silicosis develops after a decade or more of continued exposure to silica dust. However, the prevalence is not insignificant.

One study published in 2012 documented 25 cases in Israel. Nearly 50 cases have been reported in Spain.

Most disconcertingly, many patients diagnosed with silicosis are relatively young. The average age is under 40, but most patients have worked in the development of quartz countertops for 9 to 17 years.

There is evidence that this problem exists in the United States as well. OSHA and PEL both indicate that silica dust in most stone fabrication shops exceeds recommended levels. There are 100,000 workers in these shops. Each one is at risk.

So far, 18 workers have been diagnosed with silicosis in the United States.

To compensate, many manufacturers have limited the amount of dust being created. The biggest risk comes from dry cutting. By switching to wet cutting, dust levels have been lowered.

This risk has made some people question the eco-friendly label for quartz. Fortunately, the history of silica dust is thoroughly documented.

The problem has existed since the 1930s, and wet cutting measures are relatively easy to implement for the safety of workers.

How Does Quartz Compare to Granite?

Now that quartz is considered an elite choice for modern kitchen design, it must be compared to other mainstays in the design world. Of particular interest to most people is its comparison to granite.

Granite was the preferred choice for countertops for years. A close comparison between granite and quartz can yield some interesting conclusions.

Appearance

When used for countertops, granite is mined in full slabs called dimension stones. This allows the countertop to capture the full appearance of the granite with imperfections and variations. Granite accounts for 40 percent of all the mined dimension stone.

The reason granite is so attractive is in its formation. Granite is actually a composite rock, which means that it is composed of other rocks and minerals. Ironically, granite is usually composed of quartz.

This variation leads to the different appearance of each slab. The color can usually be traced back to the predominant minerals in its composition. For example, if there is a lot of quartz in the granite, it will have a white or milky appearance.

The beauty of granite comes from the fact that it cannot be replicated. The colors and patterns naturally ebb and flow.

Quartz, by contrast, has a manufactured feel. The natural variations simply do not exist in the manufacturing process.

This is why most people believe that quartz is not as attractive as granite. However, quartz is more dimensional than solid stone or laminate.

Performance

Appearance is only part of the story. A comparison of the performance is also quite relevant to the discussion.

One of the biggest drawbacks of granite is that it must be sealed. As a natural stone, granite has a porous surface. If it is not sealed, then moisture or bacteria can seep inside.

This can cause the granite to stain or retain bacteria or germs. Unsealed granite can be very unsanitary and lose its appearance.

Some granite countertops are pre-sealed, which can minimize your maintenance. Otherwise, you must regularly seal your countertop and clean it often to avoid stains.

Granite is also somewhat prone to cracking. Natural fissures in the stone can lead to weaknesses that develop over time. Moreover, applying extremely hot or cold temperatures may cause cracks to develop.

Ultimately, neither of these weaknesses is present in quartz. Quartz never needs to be sealed, and it is not prone to cracking or staining. It is a low maintenance option that has superior durability over granite and other natural stone.

Sustainability

Finally, when it comes to the environmental impact, there are several factors to consider in the comparison.

First, consider sustainability. Quartz is very abundant in the natural world, which makes it far more accessible.

Granite can only be mined in a few locations, and the most prolific quarries are in Italy and Brazil.

Because granite is mined in full slabs for countertops, it is a more laborious process. It must be transported great distances, and it must be moved with extreme care to avoid damage to the slabs.

Health & Safety

Finally, there is an issue of health. There has been research devoted to the idea that granite may emit radon and other gases into the air. In fact, there is some evidence that granite may have radioactive properties.

The risk could develop over the years. As time passes, the uranium and thorium already present in the natural stone can start to decay. This can naturally release radiation. When granite is in your home, the theory is that you may be exposed to this radiation.

While this problem exists for granite, quartz does not have this issue. There is no evidence that engineered stone releases radon. This is likely linked to the fact that quartz is not a porous material.

Despite this fact, there is no evidence that either material is actually dangerous on a broad scale. Studies have deemed any radiation emitted from granite to be minimal and acceptable.

Therefore, quartz may be more environmentally friendly and better for your health, but the risk from either is still extremely low.

What Is the Difference Between Quartz and Quartzite?

With this discussion of quartz, there is still one last distinction to make.

Quartz countertops are becoming very common, but they are not the only option. Quartzite is another countertop material to keep in mind.

Quartz is engineered, but quartzite is a type of metamorphic rock. Derived from sandstone, quartzite is mined in a way that is similar to granite. It can be used for the following purposes:

  • Countertops
  • Floor tiles
  • Wall tiles
  • Backsplashes

Quartzite has more limited color variations, and it is typically white and gray. Its hardness and durability is comparable to granite, but the appearance is more like marble. Because it is natural stone, it must be sealed to prevent stains and damage.

Quartzite has some appeal over quartz because of its environmental benefits. Quartzite is totally natural without any man-made polymers or pigments.

Comparatively, quartzite may also be more resistant to scratching and acids than quartz. Quartzite registers around an 8 on the Moh’s mineral hardness scale.

The material is also very good with heat. Quartz uses a resin that will melt at high temperatures. This is not the case with quartzite.

Overall, quartz has its own advantages, but it is clear that quartzite should be included in the discussion. For pure environmental reasons, quartzite may be preferable to quartz for some people.

Conclusion

Ultimately, there are many reasons why you should consider quartz for your countertops.

Although quartz is engineered stone, it offers many environmental advantages that are worth remembering. More than that, quartz performs well and lasts longer for most homeowners.

The question of sustainability is one that all people have to answer for themselves. For your kitchen, quartz may be part of that answer today.

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