Quartz vs. Recycled Glass Countertops

Photo by Nicolas Horn on Unsplash

An average glass bottle weighs 8 ounces, or half of a pound.

Imagine keeping 1,000 glass bottles (500 lbs) out of the landfill simply by upgrading your kitchen…that is what recycled glass countertops can do for the environment. Plus, you’ll still have the sexiest kitchen in the neighborhood. The tennis tarts all have marble-looking quartz, which is so 2020, but you and your pickleball posse have recycled glass countertops and a feel good story to boot.

Terrazzo is trending and recycled glass has that look, with large, vibrant (or subtle) flecks of clear, blue, white, brown or green glass (GEOS Surfaces even has a recycled red glass option) and several options even include pearlescent shell that give the countertops an added beachy quality.

The queens of the courts will tell you the countertop queen is quartz, but the glass is greener on the other side of the countertop fence. Recycled glass countertops are better for the planet and set themselves apart from the commodity products in several ways.

First, let’s recap some of the key points about quartz.

What are quartz countertops made of?

Quartz countertops are crushed quartz mineral, refined and cleaned, and cast into a slab with a polyester resin to hold it together. The ability to crush the quartz so finely means the design options are vast, allowing quartz to quickly replace granite as the top countertop of choice in the last decade. This also happened because quartz is man made and not mined or extracted from the earth like natural stone, which created a bit of a Wild West in its heyday, having a massive environmental impact on communities due to unsustainable extraction and harvesting in an effort to make a quick buck.

Why is quartz commoditized?

In the last ten years, as quartz demand was heating up, opportunistic companies in China and elsewhere took notice and began to manufacture it. Rapidly, these materials flooded the market and cheap knockoffs were being swapped in for more reputable brands like Cambria, Silestone, and Caesarstone. Suddenly, a prestigious product was being sold at a fraction of what it had been selling at the year before. Cambria was quick to take notice––and take action––and tariffs were placed on this material as the US ITC (International Trade Commission) determined the material was being dumped in the US.

This was a boon for the US quartz manufacturers who quickly capitalized on the lack of commodity material flooding the market. For now.

What was the work around?

Not wanting to be completely locked out of the US market, the Chinese companies started looking for a replacement for the pulverized quartz (which is technically crystalline silica) and determined that they could use amorphous silica aka glass. So they quickly pivoted to swap the quartz for glass and started selling again. But this was just a way to circumvent the tariffs, and the Minnesota mind trust caught on again and filed more tariffs to get this new pulverized glass included in the massive duties assessed as the slabs crossed into the US.

What was the next workaround?

Turkey and Vietnam jumped in to make quartz and, while tariffs were pursued against them, they were minuscule in comparison to the Chinese tariffs, so shipping and manufacturing from these two countries continued.

But China isn’t just sitting there. What was the next workaround?

They were not waiting. Transshipping, where material is sent from one country to another for doing some fabrication or alteration (or not), had already started right away when their tariffs were being pursued. Malaysia, for example, was one of the countries cited for this practice but there were others as well. Transshipping is a deliberate attempt to evade the 300%+ tariffs imposed on the quartz material made in China. The legal action against this practice is ongoing as of this post.

How is Recycled Glass Different?

The tariffs that went into place as a result of China’s workaround were intended to address the pulverized glass used in the quartz knock-off slabs, not recycled glass used in products like GEOS (which is also made in China) or other recycled glass products like Gilasi and IceStone (soon to shut down its Brooklyn plant and be made by Vetrazzo) which are made in the USA.

The glass ruling did impact GEOS Recycled Glass Surfaces though, as they had to reformulate to ensure that all glass pieces were larger than the minimum size stipulated by the tariff language:

“Crushed glass surface products must meet each of the following criteria to qualify for this exclusion: (1) The crushed glass content is greater than any other single material, by actual weight; (2) there are pieces of crushed glass visible across the surface of the product; (3) at least some of the individual pieces of crushed glass that are visible across the surface are larger than one centimeter wide as measured at their widest cross-section (glass pieces); and (4) the distance between any single glass piece and the closest separate glass piece does not exceed three inches.”

Recycled glass surfacing, as described above, has a different look and different qualities. It is chunkier, funkier, more transparent (not visually), and often crystalline silica-free. Quartz started out with a terrazzo flair but has now gravitated to the “marble” madness that has gripped the surfacing world. The most popular quartz colors are typically white with gray veining, which evokes the look of marble but with increased durability.  Recycled glass products look like the swatches pictured below and trend toward terrazzo, but with a great sustainability story and are some of the “greenest” countertops you can buy.

Recycled glass countertops are the new game in town. Far less confusing a landscape, without all the rules and regulations that quartz products are subject to due to the commoditization of the category.  If you do use quartz, do your homework in choosing a reputable brand like Cambria, Silestone or Caesarstone.  

Recycled glass surfaces are making a comeback, even as the industry consolidates. (As of this writing, IceStone recently announced plans to shut down its operations and move production to another facility). As green building continues its advancement and adoption (albeit, slower than many would like), these surfaces tell the story of all the hard work behind the walls. Energy efficiency, water efficiency and elimination of hazardous chemicals are all extremely important to building design, but ultimately, it is the visible products that let the owners and designers tell the story of the sustainability within.

So whether you are tied to team tennis or think pickleball’s poppin, trying terrazzo or stuck on sustainability…

….there are options on the courts.

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