Thinking holistically about the materials in your home is tough, especially when greenwashing is so prevalent. Stone sources will tell you their product is natural as it comes directly from nature — can’t get much better than that! But, given it’s a non-renewable and non-regenerative resource, how sustainable can it be to continue to pull from the earth? The two options we have when selecting stone are, direct from quarry (marble, granite), or man-made (quartz). Both have their own benefits but, arguably natural stone is far more detrimental to earth than our man-made alternative.

Man-made stones are typically composed of recycled material and non-toxic substances. For example, Quartz is primarily silica (one of the most abundant materials on earth) bound with resin and polymers, as well as ingredients like pigments which customize the look before heat curing at high temperatures. Alternately, Marbles and Granites are thousands and thousands of years in the making, pulled from the earth using excessive water and electrical power.

When producing man-made products we have the benefit of being able to control our environmental impact. We can look at and plan for the energy required at our factories, as well as control the material makeup of the product. Separate from the abundantly used silica, manufacturers also tend to use different proportions of recycled material in their designs. Man-made materials have the added benefit of being produced by manufacturers who register for third-party testing certification. ISO 14001 Certification, and Greenguard, both of whom adhere to environmentally-friendly production standards confirm the product was produced with low chemical emissions, in addition to ensuring safe working environments. Lastly, man made products are far easier to maintain. There is significantly less staining, it’s an anti-microbial material because it isn’t porous, and in the case of damage, we have a much easier time repairing. Repairing of course is ideal as it doesn’t require the production of additional material.

Now, natural stone has the benefit of being a zero VOC (Volatile Organic Compound) emission product. It can be recycled down into alternate products — for example, a stone building can be disassembled and the stone reformed or refinished for use as paving materials, retaining walls, or an exterior facade. Stone fragments can also be adhered to create a completely new design or mosaic. The notion of recycling would eliminate the energy, water, and other resources needed to generate new products from virgin or other raw materials. But, that only benefits us if we are able to preserve the existing material — ultimately, we cannot put stone back in the earth and because of that, the finite nature of it appears to negatively outweigh its man made competitor.

The quarry itself is its own issue — once depleted of its desired resources, quarries are frequently abandoned. “The majority are built close to urban environments due to the expense of transporting raw materials into the city for industrial use in buildings and roads. As a result, inhabitants of neighborhoods near quarries are subjected to air pollution from dust, and […] noise pollution from trucks and machinery. Not only do quarries often negatively impact those who live nearby, but they often leave residual negative impacts on the environment. Runoff of chemical pollutants into bodies of water, loss of natural habitats, farmland, and vegetation, and natural resource exhaustion are among the most harmful environmental impacts.”

There are solutions to remedying the damage we’ve created at a quarry site but only a handful to reference. Civita Park in San Diego, California adapted a depleted quarry into a 14 acre park featuring an amphitheater, basketball courts, walking trails and more. Examples like this show we have the ability to rehabilitate an area previously disturbed by quarrying but, the cost and time required may not be feasible everywhere.

Given the life-cycle of natural stone versus man made, I would still argue the case for our man made options with the caveat that manufacturers should all be regulated by third-party environmental standards. Depleting our natural resources continues to be an issue. Not only because of their inherent non-renewable nature, but because ultimately the energy required to do so only benefits a consumer-based society. So long as manufacturers continue to create interesting designs at low cost, consumers may not care about the fact that it’s the greener option (even if it is!).

Alex Hirsch is a sustainable designer, project manager and regenerative design advocate who specializes in developing thoughtful, purposeful spaces.