Ceramic Industry

Sustainability Defined

August 1, 2009


If you spend time around people who are passionate about the environment, it doesn’t take long before the discussion turns to sustainability. The word has an almost mystical quality; it has become the holy grail of building practices. While sustainability means many things to many people, it really isn’t that hard to define.

Simply put, sustainability is about living today in a way that makes it possible for future generations to have as good a life as we do. It’s about living in balance with the earth so resources are used sparingly and turned into products that last a long time. Truly, sustainability is vital: while the Earth is vast, reserves of energy and raw materials are finite.

It is simple in theory, but putting sustainability into practice can be more slippery. Even for a rapidly renewable resource like bamboo, there’s a forest to be clear-cut, pesticides that must be applied, soil to be depleted, and runoff sent into a river. Ironically, the longest-lasting floor (and wall) covering isn’t a trendy new fad; tile has been around for thousands of years.

Egyptian, Greek and Babylonian civilizations all used fired tile to decorate floors and walls as a way to seek immortality. In fact, long after the walls and roofs of ancient buildings lay in ruins, the floors continued to live on in new buildings that were built on top of the old. The long life and re-usability of tile are just as important today as they were then.

Green Manufacturing

It’s important to stop and take a look at the origins of ceramic tile. After all, just because a product lasts forever doesn’t necessarily make it Earth-friendly. Like all flooring, tile does require energy to produce. Over the years, some have criticized “embodied energy” as a negative to tile, but the tile industry has responded to that charge. Mostly gone are the energy-guzzling tunnel kilns and periodic kilns that require heating refractories as well as the tile. Most tile is now fired in ultra-efficient roller hearth kilns that heat and cool only the tile itself. Years ago, it may have taken days to fire, but a modern porcelain tile is in the kiln for less than an hour.

Raw materials can also be a cause for concern. To be truly sustainable, raw materials should come from close to the point of manufacture, be in abundant supply, and be easily extracted with minimal disturbance to the environment. Many raw materials used in the manufacture of tile, including clay, feldspar and silica, are among the most abundant components of the earth’s crust. With ample identified reserves that are close to the surface, the raw materials that go into tile certainly qualify as sustainable. What’s more, the dust and scrap generated during the manufacturing process can be reused; tile factories are now constructed to be “closed loop,” with very little material going to landfills.

In the U.S., tile factories are scattered across the country and are usually located close to the source of their raw materials. This close proximity provides consumers with the benefit of having a regional tile manufacturer close to most major cities in North America while also allowing for reduced transportation-related costs and carbon emissions.

Due to the headlines of “sick building syndrome” and the increases in asthma and allergies in the U.S., more attention is being paid to indoor air quality as well. Because tile is fired to temperatures in excess of 2000°F, no volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are left to be emitted into the indoor air. Unlike other flooring choices, which offer reduced VOC options, tile can claim virtually none.

Additional Benefits

With today’s superior installation products and durable glazes, a tile floor will most likely outlive the building in which it is installed. Once installed, a tile floor is also much easier to maintain than other flooring choices. Harsh chemicals, stripping compounds and refinishing are unnecessary. In addition, flooring that doesn’t have to be replaced doesn’t end up in landfills.

Innovative uses for tile are also leading to reductions in cost and energy once installed. Newly popular under-floor heating systems allow homeowners to have heat where it’s needed (by the floor) and not where it’s wasted (overhead). Tile is also being moved outdoors, into hardscapes with a low solar reflective index and as an exterior cladding product. While using tile as a building cladding is very popular in Europe, the trend has only recently emerged in the U.S. due to increased interest in the reduced heating and cooling costs associated with buildings built with this method.

Ongoing Efforts

Despite the obvious advantages to tile, work still needs to be done. In the mid-90s, the framework for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) and the current green movement had begun, but the tile industry was slow to the table. As a result, less-sustainable flooring products are often chosen because the guidelines were written to favor the writers. However, thanks to the Green Initiative of the Tile Council of North America (TCNA), the tile industry is now responding in full force by working to submit life cycle analysis (LCA) data to national databases and to bring common sense to the flooring discussion (see the “Green Initiative” sidebar for additional details).

In today’s competitive green marketplace, it is not enough to rest on one’s laurels. The Green Initiative is challenging manufacturers to step up their environmental game. More can be done to use recycled materials in formulations, heat with green energy sources, and make sure facilities are being run with the environment in mind. Instead of simply playing catch-up, the tile industry is looking to lead the way to a more sustainable future.

For additional information, contact Florida Tile, P.O. Box 447, Lakeland, FL 33802; (800) 352-8453; fax (800) 789-8453; e-mail dan.marvin@floridatile.com; or visit www.floridatile.com. The TCNA’s website is located at www.tileusa.com.

SIDEBAR: Taking the Initiative

The Tile Council of North America’s Green Initiative Committee was conceived in 2007 to get the facts out about tile’s sustainability and to drive improvement in the industry. The committee is made up of active and enthusiastic experts from all of the major North American manufacturers of tile and installation products. Three subcommittees focus on technical issues, marketing issues, and relationships with the various green organizations.

A pamphlet was unveiled at Coverings this year touting tile as “The Natural Choice,” and a submission will soon be made to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to include tile in the national life cycle analysis database called BEES (Building for Environmental and Economic Sustainability). Many other projects are also currently underway. For more information, contact committee chairman Dan Marvin at dan.marvin@floridatile.com or co-chair Bill Griese at BGriese@tileusa.com.

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