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Sustainable ceramics - tiles as the green option

Clay Technology magazine
17 Apr 2009
Tiled bathroom

The UK Tile Association is keen to remind customers that ceramics are high on the list of green options.

With specifiers and developers being required to use sustainable materials within buildings, the use of ceramic wall and floor tiles has become a more important factor in the choice of decorative materials. The requirement for product durability is covered in the product norm BS EN 14411, which refers to ceramic wall tiles having a whole-life projection equal to the life of the building. A lifespan of 50 years is not unusual.

In the domestic market homeowners are focused on sustainability. They want to know where the materials used in their home came from and if they are eco-friendly.

Governmental initiatives

The UK’s Tile Association, on behalf of the industry, is in talks with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs with regard to the Green Procurement guide. The Association feels that UK businesses are already producing a wealth of data on their environmental performance, and the most resource-efficient approach to green procurement would make use of this data to choose environmentally responsible partners in the procurement process.

Some of the data called for in the proposed Ecolabel-based criteria are not readily available, and the need to evaluate multiple criteria for every product would add significantly to the cost of bringing these items to the marketplace, as well as making it more unlikely that they would be chosen by less green procurers. It is not in our environmental or financial interests to create unnecessary barriers to competitiveness for environmentally preferred materials. It is far better, where possible, to work from existing data prepared by suppliers and manufacturers, in response to governmental measures or Environmental Management System Standards, which can demonstrate the effectiveness of environmental performance.

Meanwhile, new European standards for sustainability in construction are in preparation via CEN/TC350 (with input from the British Standards Institute’s B/558 Committee), and will undoubtedly provide a basis for future criteria.

The products

The message for all markets is tiles are ‘green’. They come from the earth and are made from natural clay that has been baked in a kiln – even the glazes and decoration are made from naturally occurring minerals.

Tiles have an extremely long life – think of all those Roman tiles that are still intact – so they need to be replaced less often, offsetting the energy used to produce, package and deliver them in a way that does not apply to less durable materials. Tiles can also be part of a building’s heat system as they are suitable for use with wet and electric underfloor heating. Tiles generally aid the thermal mass aspect of the structure.

In most domestic and commercial situations tiles will last longer than almost any other building material, only needing replacing for reasons of style and fashion – with a truly classic design that could be over a lifetime.

Taking action

As the popularity of green building takes hold, many manufacturers are continuing to refine their processes to be more earth-friendly by reducing their carbon footprints and improving energy, water and raw materials conservation.

Many Spanish tile manufacturers (the majority of ceramic tiles used in the UK come from Spain) are recycling their water and post-industrial waste, conserving energy costs by using their own solar power, and using co-generation to simultaneously generate electricity and useful heat.

Less than 30 years ago it took several weeks to make a quarry tile and over a week to make a glazed wall tile. In those days a decorated wall tile would be fired at least three times. Now the whole process takes a matter of hours, with the tile being fired only once for as little as 30 minutes.

In 2008 the Tile Association introduced an annual award for the ‘Best initiative to reduce environmental impact’. The award recognises the importance of sustainability and care for the environment. It attracted nominations from many companies taking environmental initiatives right across the supply chain, from manufacture to installation. The winner was adhesives manufacturer and distributer Instarmac, Tamworth, UK, for its overall environmental policies and the energy saving design of its new headquarters in Rochdale, UK.

Further information: UK Tile Association