Compared to oil–based synthetics like vinyl flooring or aggressively mined materials such as marble, ceramic tiles have always been an environmentally friendly design choice. A long-lasting “wood look” ceramic floor, for instance, has an even smaller carbon footprint than real parquet. But while the remarkable durability of modern ceramics continues to be a defining advantage of the medium, the industry isn’t sitting idly on its strengths, embracing automation and better waste-disposal practices to enhance tilemaking’s green cred even more.
Take Lea Ceramiche’s factory in the Italian town of Fiorano Modenese, which is located some 45 kilometres west of Bologna, host of the world’s leading tile expo every year. There, laser-guided vehicles affectionately known as WALL-Es roll down the aisles of an automated production facility that ranks among the most efficient in the world. Requiring little human oversight, shop floor machinery churns out pristine ceramic slabs as required, reducing both human error and labour costs in the process.
Equipped with advanced abatement filters, factories such as Lea Ceramiche’s now capture virtually all dust emissions, leaving the surrounding landscape relatively unscathed. Today, 99 per cent of the Italian industry’s production waste and water is also reused, with ceramic manufacturers going as far as utilizing discarded construction materials such as glass and brick to create their lines.
“They are produced with minimum waste, maximum performance and what I will call design leadership,” the American design historian Grace Jeffers, who has studied the industry, says admiringly, noting that beauty and efficiency go hand in hand. “I do not understand why someone would use ‘the real thing’ when you could have an Italian slab that is more consistent, durable and easier to maintain.”
Whether automating processes or reclaiming waist, sustainable practices are part of the new(er) normal in ceramic tile production.