White, ceramic tile-clad building with balconies.
A multifamily residential building by Pietri Architectes in Marseille, France, is clad in Casalgrande Padana’s ceramic tile. Courtesy of the Manufacturer.

Exactly How Sustainable are Ceramic Tiles?

Italian tile manufacturers want to remind designers of tile’s long history as a healthy material and spread the word on how they’re improving production methods.

Last September, the Italian ceramic tile industry held its annual exhibition Cersaie in Bologna, Italy, and things went largely according to script: Attendees got the chance to see and touch cutting-edge textures, innovative glazing options, bold profiles, and wallpaper-inspired prints. But there was also something else brewing in the dewy Italian air: talk of how sustainable these products have always been.

Confindustria Ceramica, the main association representing manufacturing and service companies in Italy, set the tone for the week with the release of a highly polished short film called The Ceramics of Italy for Sustainability. Part of a new promotional campaign, the one-minute video communicates the Italian ceramic industry’s eco-friendly achievements.

But the main thrust of the overall campaign is to remind the architecture and design community that this material has always had naturally derived elements, and therefore has long held benefits for human health and the environment. “For thousands of years, the ingredients have remained unchanged,” the video’s narrator states. “The only thing that has evolved is the process, part of a circular lifecycle.”

The heightened focus on tiles’ sustainability is driven partly by growing concern over climate change and partly by the immediacy of skyrocketing energy costs, raw material shortages, and supply chain disruptions—hurdles faced while specifying materials which only makes the quality more important when they arrive.

Blue chair and yellow table in a green room.
Courtesy of Naxos

“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:

A close-up of a pile of broken bits of ceramic tile.
Courtesy Confindustria Ceramica


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.

A hand picking up a shard of white, broken clay tile from a bin full of them.
Courtesy Confindustria Ceramica

“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.

Courtesy Confindustria Ceramica

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.

Courtesy Confindustria Ceramica


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.

Unfinished rectangular tiles on a conveyor belt.
Clay tile bodies. Courtesy Confindustria Ceramica

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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