Skip to content

The future is green

Back in the 1990s, when I founded ECO - the UK’s pioneering sustainable architecture magazine for professional specifiers – the issue of sustainability barely influenced the major construction and planning decisions. It was one factor among many, and often amounted to little more than greenwash: a nod to a sustainable future while the real focus was short term profit.

NewsBack to the news

Sadly, over the next two or three decades, the tile sector didn’t really embrace the sustainability challenge. While significant steps were taken in terms of energy co-generation, water recycling, etc, there wasn’t a co-ordinated drive to communicate the material’s green credentials. Indeed, much of marketing messaging was poorly researched and of little value. This was a pity, because ceramic and porcelain tiles have compelling green credentials.

With such a mixed bag of ‘green’ information out in the marketplace, it can be hard for professional specifiers or home owners to sort fact from fiction. Thankfully, there are some powerful benchmarks to provide empirical guidance through the sustainability labyrinth. In the UK, the two major resources are probably BREEAM: The Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method; and SKA Rating: the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors' environmental assessment method.

Assessed using frameworks like these, porcelain and ceramic tiles reveal a great sustainability story. One major plus is the volume of recycled content that can be incorporated in the product itself. There are three main ways to use recycled content in tiles.

Pre-Production - The manufacturer mills any material that is chipped, scratched, or technically below par prior firing and recycle it back into the production process. Post-Production - Below standard fired product is milled and reused. Post-Consumer - Ceramic raw materials can be created from consumer waste, such as glass from old TV sets being crushed and used in tile production.

Kilns, of course, use a lot of energy. So while the basic raw material – clay – is easy to extract and plentiful, firing it requires large amounts of energy, normally gas. While modern kilns are around 30% more efficient than the first tunnel kilns, this remains an issue. That is why the recent announcement by the world’s leading manufacturer of tile production equipment of plans to introduce hydrogen-powered kilns within three years promises to be a real game changer.

In addition, tile factories have adopted increasingly energy efficient manufacturing process. Examples include channelling ‘waste’ heat from kilns through to drying rooms, or using it to heat other areas of the factory. Another is that tiles are now commonly distributed in recycled cardboard boxes, using minimum packaging without compromising the safety of the tiles.

Transport is a massive factor when evaluating a tile’s at a carbon footprint. One way the tile sector cuts its transport footprint is through groupage. This means shipping orders from different factories, or for different companies, in the same, fully-laden, containers. This minimises the number of lorry journeys required to move a set weight of tiles.

The chemicals used to fix tiles are another important element in the sustainability story. The leading adhesive and grout producers are all committed to offering the innovative and eco-sustainable solutions. This has resulted in a new wave of installation materials formulated with innovative, recycled, ultra-light raw materials. These have been developed to reduce energy consumption and to result in very low VOC emissions. Many also use recycled materials in their formulations.

Another important contribution to eco-sustainability is made through the development of products with improved performance characteristics and durability. By delivering structures with an intrinsically longer service life, these advanced formulations mean less material consumption and waste; and lower embodied energy in construction.

In addition, new low dust, lightweight adhesives offer higher yield, have a reduced environmental impact due to transport, and have less potential impact on the user’s health.

Today more and more tiling products are being supplied with an EPD (Environmental Product Declaration): a certified report, prepared according to international standards, that documents the effects a product has on the environment throughout its entire cycle. An EPD life cycle assessment helps architects, and other buyers, to fully understand a product’s sustainability characteristics. With GPP (green public procurement) now mandatory in many countries, this has to be the way forward.

The future is green!

Joe Simpson
Editor, Tile & Stone Journal


Similar posts

Want to learn what we can do for your business?