Asked by DeniseEditor: Here's what our friends at Green Home Guide say.
Answered by Molly McCabe, AKBD, CGP, A Kitchen That Works
First, I am going to assume that you mean a surround for a combined tub/shower unit (full-height walls). That said, when I think of "manufactured" tub surrounds the only materials that come to mind are fiberglass and acrylic.
Fiberglass surrounds are nasty all the way around: they offgas, they rank low on the durability scale, they are high on maintenance, especially if you live in an area with hard water, and they're typically unattractive.
Acrylic surrounds are definitely a step up, but you will not find a lot of choice. Big box retailers have a limited selection of acrylic-surround wall panel kits starting around $350, and Kohler has some acrylic bath-surround combination units that run anywhere from $2,800-$6,500 and are focused on the ADA market. They will offgas some, but not much; they are durable and somewhat attractive.
One strategy for the offgassing is to uncrate the unit and allow it to air out before installing it. Sterling, a division of Kohler, has "value priced" units made of a proprietary material called Vikree (a poly resin and fiberglass composite), but based on my own preview of this product, I would venture to guess that it will offgas, the durability will be lower than acrylic, and the maintenance will be higher.
My favorite tub surround material, especially for bathrooms used by kids, is solid surface, or what most people think of as Corian (with the exception of SwanStone -- not a product I recommend for a variety of reasons, including appearance, durability and fabrication issues). Note that Corian is just one brand of many in the solid surface class. Although solid surface is a petrochemical based product, I would class it as a “green product” because of its high durability and very, very low-maintenance qualities, which can render a very long service life, effectively reducing replacements. When it does hit the landfill, it is essential inert, and some solid surface products have recycled content.
When installed as a tub surround, this product renders very few joints, thus potential for water intrusion is minimized and grout maintenance is not required. However, you will need to re-caulk every once in a while. There is virtually no offgassing from the product after installation. Please note: the caulks and epoxies that are approved by the major solid surface manufacturers are not low-VOC. My recommendation is that if you are sensitive to VOCs that you not be present when the surround is being installed, and ask that an extraction fan be turned on during the installation.