Well all of the stone(granite, marble, soapstone, travertine), concrete, recycled glass(ice stone, terrazzo, vetrazzo), tile(ceramic, stone) , engineered stone(Caesarstone, Dupont Zodiaq, Cambria Quartz) stainless steel and solid surfacing (Corian, Avonite, Swanstone, Silestone, Livingstone) countertops have no or extremely low VOC’s such that many are GreenGuard Certified (http://www.greenguard.org/index.aspx). The durability of many of these materials are amazing and many can be sanded or ground down if they are ever chipped or damaged in some way. The real unknown with many of these countertops is not the counter itself, but the method used to attach them to the underlying substrate(usually epoxies or other adhesives), the makeup of the underlying substrate(urea-formaldehyde containing plywood), and the sealers used to seal the tops of the counters from common kitchen counter staining materials like wine, coffee, etc.. Some of the paper based countertops are made with off gassing resins based on the chemical phenol and are much more easily damaged then the more durable materials listed above. Laminate countertops are much cheaper than all the other countertops mentioned here, but are not repairable if damaged, are made of plastics, most often are attached to offgassing particle board underlayments with high VOC laden adhesives.
As for the cost, none of these options except for the laminates are “Cost Efficient”. Most will run you $6,000 – $10,000 or more for a typical sized kitchen from a normal fabricator and installer. But you don’t have to go with the typical installation either. On many of our projects, we go to the “bone yards” of local installers to look for remnants of granite slabs. Often, the installers will heavily discount this material. You can have the fabricator cut, polish and install the materials. You also can do the work yourself by cutting and polishing the materials with simple tools you can buy at a stone fabricator store online for less than $200. Another option it to visit a local building material salvage company. This option involves a lot of shopping around to find one that you like in a size that you can use, or you can just pick what is cheap and will work and go with it. Either way, you will save thousands of dollars off of buying it new. You will also be supporting an industry that keeps hundreds of thousands of tons of C&D debris out of our landfills and gives tens of thousands of Americans to work. Sounds like a great way to save money and build a little bit of sweat equity in the process.