Going Green With Recycled Countertop Materials

One of the oldest slogans of the environmental movement is “reduce, reuse and recycle,” which describes a responsible and sustainable approach to waste management and the conservation of materials. Today’s green consumers keep this phrase in mind when evaluating the attributes of environmentally responsible building products.

The green building movement, led by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), is definitely impacting the countertop fabrication business, with a variety of new countertop materials touting their environmental credentials and vying for sales in an increasingly competitive marketplace. In this column, I’ll talk about one such material.

I had the opportunity to tour Vetrazzo’s factory this past January. Vetrazzo is a countertop material that is composed primarily of recycled glass. The company is located in Richmond, CA. The factory where Vetrazzo is manufactured has a fascinating history, and is itself a prime example of the environmental principle of reuse.

Built in 1930, the 500,000-sq.-ft. factory building was originally a Ford Motor Company assembly plant, and was designed by renowned architect Albert Kahn, whose practice was headquartered in Detroit. I grew up in Detroit among iconic buildings designed by Kahn, who was probably the foremost industrial architect of the early 20th century.

Kahn was a prolific architect who also designed homes, office buildings, hospitals and many other types of buildings. This particular Ford plant was an example of the “daylight factory” concept, with a zigzag roof line fitted with windows that allowed for natural lighting of the enormous shop floor. During World War II, this factory was converted to war production and workers assembled over 49,000 Jeeps there. It was also a tank depot, and army tanks and armored personnel carriers were outfitted there for shipment from the adjacent harbor on San Francisco Bay to battlefields throughout the Pacific theater.

Renovated for modern use, the factory is now home to a solar energy company, several clothing companies and Vetrazzo.

Going Green with Glass

When you step into Vetrazzo’s production facility, you see many gigantic white fabric sacks that look like enormous versions of reusable grocery bags. Some of these sacks have labels indicating they contain soybeans, but Vetrazzo doesn’t contain soybeans and these bags are just another example of reuse. For food safety reasons, soybean processors can only use these sacks once, so Vetrazzo obtains them to store their primary raw materials – various types of broken glass. Each bag can hold nearly two tons of glass.

As I walked around, I could see a surprising variety of contents. Some held broken beer, wine and soda bottles in clear, green, brown and blue. One bag held the distinctive blue glass of Skyy vodka bottles, rejected as defects by the manufacturer. Another held deep red lenses from retired runway lights at the San Jose airport. Some held colorful scrap glass collected by stained glass window artisans. Another bag held broken window panes from a demolished office building. Some bags contain a wide variety of assorted glassware, vases and even broken wine glasses. Each bag was filled with raw material for manufacturing Vetrazzo countertop slabs.

A slab of Vetrazzo contains about 85% recycled glass. Some of this glass is categorized as post-industrial, while some is post-consumer, and the percentages vary according to each individual pattern. Those consisting of 100% post-consumer glass content are considered the “greenest” and result in the most LEED points when used in a building project to be certified green by the USGBC.

The glass is held together by a proprietary Portland cement matrix, which also contains fly ash, pigments and other recycled ingredients, some of which are trade secrets. After the glass is blended together with the liquid cement, the mixture is poured into large flat molds, where it hardens and is then steam oven cured for many hours to temper and strengthen it. Then, the slabs are removed from the molds and go onto a wet grinding machine that mills off the top four millimeters to expose the beauty of the glass.

The surface is then polished to a gloss finish. All of the water used in grinding and polishing is piped to an enormous 150,000-gallon settling tank and the water is then reused. The slurry of clay-like cement and glass particles is recycled by a paving contractor for making road beds.

Some patterns of Vetrazzo may receive an applied stain, called a “patina,” that darkens the cement matrix. The finished slab size is 5'x9', and the finished thickness is 1-1/4". Each slab weighs approximately 700 pounds.

Fabrication & Installation

Fabrication and installation procedures comply with the recommendations of the Marble Institute of America for residential stone countertops, and working with Vetrazzo is very similar to working with granite.

Installations completed by a Vetrazzo certified fabricator are eligible for the company’s 10-year warranty. The company warns that sharper edge details are prone to impact chipping and dislodging of pieces of glass, and recommends a minimum 3/16" radius on all edges and outside corners. No warranty is offered on glass chipping and dislodging. Use of a penetrating sealer followed by a wax finish is recommended for the best stain resistance and optimum appearance.

Despite the economic downturn, production at Vetrazzo rose significantly in 2008, to a level nearly twice that of a year before. In early 2008, the company hired industry veteran Bob Paradiso as its v.p./sales. Paradiso previously worked for Israeli quartz manufacturer CaesarStone, and also for Formica, specializing in marketing solid surface materials for many years. One recent marketing coup was an appearance on Late Night with Jay Leno by environmentalist and actor Ed Begley, Jr., where he praised his new Vetrazzo countertops. Dozens of national magazines, other television shows and Web sites also featured Vetrazzo last year.

In December, 2008, the California State Department of Conservation awarded Vetrazzo a grant of $1,396,000 for a project to add cleaning equipment to reduce contamination and improve the cleanliness of its raw glass material. This grant is estimated to create 29 new jobs. In January, the company announced it now has a complete coast-to-coast distribution of its products throughout the U.S., as well as much of Canada.

The most striking thing about Vetrazzo is its distinctive and engaging appearance. It is a premium-priced product, comparable to higher-end granites, according to company officials.

In a time when green is definitely a hot trend, countertop professionals should familiarize themselves with Vetrazzo and all of the other green countertop materials.