December 16, 2022
Exactly How Sustainable are Ceramic Tiles?
“The increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather phenomena is raising public awareness of climate change and the need for responsible consumption and lifestyle choices,” according to an official press release at the show.
It’s no secret that ceramic tile is made from earth-derived ingredients such as clay, talc, sand, feldspar, dolomite, calcite, and water. These ingredients are mixed, dried, and fired to create tiles that make for a durable, low-maintenance surface that works in almost any environment, and does not off-gas.
But like all other manufacturing sectors, Italian tile makers have also had to address embodied carbon inherent in modern processing such as the extraction of raw materials, water used for production, and factory waste. So in addition to tiles’ clean basic chemistry, manufacturers also wish to be recognized for taking steps to ease the environmental impact of their processing, including eliminating toxic raw materials, recycling wastewater and production waste, and using rail transport for freight. Now they want to make sure those efforts are widely known:
During the show, Mauro Rullo, who handles climate policies and sustainability at Confindustria, said that the sector’s water reduction has been dramatic since the 1970s, and factories are continuing to reduce usage. “Today, the use of water to produce tiles is 10 L/m2 , while in 2010 it was 12 L/m2,” Rullo says. “This is a decrease of 17 percent in 12 years. One hundred percent of the waste water produced during the process is fully recovered and reintroduced into the production process. Ninety-seven percent of Italian tile manufacturers do not dispose of waste water because they have the capacity to recover it completely.”
Recently, the industry has taken steps to have ceramic tiles recognized by green building programs, such as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) and NAHB National Green Building Standard. In 2018, a few Italian tilemakers also introduced their Environmental Product Declarations (EPD) to attendees at the Coverings tile and stone trade show in Atlanta. The declaration provides specifiers with a way of measuring a product’s environmental performance. As a group Confindustria Ceramica hopes using them will promote international awareness of the outstanding results achieved by the Italian ceramic tile industry.
“The EPD for Italian ceramic tiles, suitably integrated with the inclusion of specific impact categories, has obtained mutual recognition with UL (Underwriters Laboratories): a safety science leader and program operator for the North American market,” Ceramics of Italy said at the time. “The EPD is now available on the UL’s SPOT database, which is one of the largest credible sustainable product databases available and contains more than 50,000 products.”
In another milestone, the Italian tile community in 2021 celebrated the release of ISO 17889-1:2021, Ceramic tiling systems — Sustainability for ceramic tiles and installation materials – Part 1: Specification for ceramic tiles. Published by the International Organization of Standardization, it is the first global standard defining sustainable ceramic tiles. A second part of the standard is under development and will cover tile installation materials, such as adhesives, grouts, and membranes.
Marco Mari, chairman of Green Building Council Italia, explained that the green building sector focuses on the environmental characteristics of materials, products and systems as part of its rating protocols. The ISO 17889-1 standard is particularly useful in this respect, he said, because it defines standardized metrics for assessing the level of sustainability of ceramic tiles.
Italian manufacturers are collectively advancing sustainability, but individual brands also are making moves. In 2020, Florim obtained the B Corp Certification, a designation that the company is meeting high standards of verified performance, accountability, and transparency on social impact and environmental performance. Companies must score 80 points to gain certification; Florim Italia scored a 98.1.
In April 2022, Caesar launched a new project called Every Day Counts, which aims to tell the story of how important it is to pursue the basic principles of a green- and people-oriented way of doing business every day, the company says. The company will focus on earth, people, and community to tell about its mission and will develop visuals, brochures, social programming, video, and photo shoots and a landing page, everydaycounts.caesar.it
And in September 2022, Panaria Group launched the Think Zero initiative to bring attention to its ultra-thin slabs and their carbon-neutral characteristics. The company said the slabs reduce the CO2 emissions generated by their production and compensate for 100% of their emissions.
But there are harsh realities that come with almost all building products. Like many materials, ceramic tiles still require a fair amount of extraction and combustion. Tiles need to be quarried and delivered to the manufacturing facilities; they are mixed with water, and have to be fired in a kiln, which is an energy intensive part of the manufacturing process. Factories have improved the process, but they are still looking for ways to go even further.
Last year, Confindustria Ceramica and other industry sectors commissioned Boston Consulting Group to analyze production processes in the hopes of reaching 2030 climate goals. Based on the report and its recommendations, Rullo sees the possibility of the ceramic industry reducing CO2 emissions by up to 40 percent by 2030 (compared to 2020 values).
The industry hopes to reach this goal by increasing the use of heat-recovery systems and “partial electrification of kilns, especially where the highest temperatures are reached,” Rullo says. The firing process is, perhaps, the biggest source of energy consumption, so companies are keen to find alternatives. Two promising clean fuel options include using biogas instead of methane (subject to its availability) and a switch to hydrogen kilns, subject to availability of the necessary technologies. “A mix of these technologies will be necessary to achieve the decarbonization targets that the Italian tile industry is called upon to achieve,” Rullo says.
One thing the industry is starting to discuss is what happens when tiles reach the end of their useful lives or get ripped out for renovations. Typically, the debris goes to the landfill, but the tile industry says this material still has value. It can be ground and used as aggregate in concrete, road construction, or railway construction. Recycling is tricky to set up because they require the necessary infrastructure, transportation logistics, and a reliable national collection system. But one such program has existed since 2009. That’s when Crossville launched its Tile Take-Back Program.
Like many companies, Crossville uses its own industrial scrap material, but it also accepts previously installed tile from the Crossville distribution network and post-consumer tile from other manufacturers and projects. Once the porcelain and tile waste is collected, it enters the company’s recycling process and then sold to third parties or reused in Crossville’s recycled tile products.
Setting up a national take-back program for tile could be a game-changer for the life cycle of ceramic tiles, Italian tile reps said at the show. It closes the loop on a material that was mined from the earth and can be reused in a wide variety of ways to extend its functional life instead of going to a landfill.
“Consumer goods such as electronic items or flooring circulate in a technical cycle,” the International System for Agricultural Science and Technology writes. “These products are already optimized during the design and manufacturing process as material resources for their next service life as new products. Components can be sorted according to their constituent materials after use and then reintroduced to a technical cycle. In so doing, a high materials quality is maintained and a downcycling can be prevented.”
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