How Do Your Countertop & Flooring Choices Impact the Environment?
The Life Cycle of Natural Stone vs. Engineered Quartz and Porcelain
So, you are ready to take on your next home design or remodeling project and have narrowed the material choices down to a few top contenders, such as natural stone, engineered quartz, and porcelain. The aesthetic qualities were probably among the first criteria you used to make your selections. But have you considered how each material impacts the environment? This information may not be provided by your material supplier. You have to dig a little deeper to find life cycle information, but it is important if you want your project to be eco-friendly and sustainable.
What Is Considered During a Life Cycle Assessment?
Different building materials have significantly different ingredients and processes that ultimately give them desirable performance characteristics like scratch, stain, and chemical resistance. Every option available for countertops and flooring has an associated life cycle as a result of the methods of production. Understanding a material’s life cycle is an important component of the decision making process in today’s green building economy and should also be considered during your home design and renovation projects. Let’s take a look at some of the parameters used to determine a product’s life cycle before comparing the materials that made your short list.
A Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) systematically evaluates the environmental impacts associated with a building material or process. LCA-based information provides insights into the environmental impacts of raw material and product choices, as well as maintenance and end-of-product-life strategies. An LCA is very powerful and consumers can use it to more easily compare similar materials or alternatives. The life cycle may take into account some or all of the following stages of production:
- Raw Material Extraction
- Material Acquisition and Pre-processing
- Fabrication and Finishing
- Use and Maintenance
Why Does the Life Cycle Matter?
Life cycle information gives you the means to understand the impact of a product on the environment and your health. It addresses issues such as whether the material was created using fossil fuels or renewable resources; whether the material impacts global warming or ozone layer depletion; if there is waste generated during the process and how that is handled; whether there are toxic emissions from the material’s production, installation, use, and disposal; and whether the material’s creation, installation, and care requires chemicals and large amounts of resources. Choosing a material with a positive Life Cycle Assessment can ensure the health of your home and occupants.
How Do You Select a Material Based on Life Cycle Information?
Today, many products have information about the life cycle or carbon footprint associated with them. This type of information is often available on the company’s website. The product may also have a sustainability label associated with it, such as GreenGuard or GreenSquared. Sustainably produced natural stone may be labeled with the ANSI/NSC373 Sustainability Standard. Access to products with these types of labels will help you more effectively compare the impacts across the same categories and criteria.
What are Some Differences between the Life Cycle of Natural Stone, Quartz, and Porcelain?
Let’s take a closer look at the life cycle of natural stone and compare it to engineered quartz and porcelain.
The life cycle of natural stone begins when it is quarried out of the ground. The material is extracted from the quarry into blocks, and then transported to a nearby facility to be fabricated into slabs, tiles, or other custom sizes for use in a project. Energy and resources are used to quarry, transport, fabricate, and finish the stone. The energy consumed in this process is quite small compared to many other materials that are created from raw materials and may also include additives or chemicals. According to the Sustainability Study, Life Cycle Assessment of Floor Coverings, natural stone has a global warming potential that is 84% less than a large format ceramic/porcelain tile.
The natural stone industry has many measures in place to work toward constant improvements in all of the areas of environmental impact. Best practices include recycling water, reducing energy use for equipment and transportation, reducing packaging, and quarry reclamation plans that return the quarry to a natural or improved state. Natural stone typically is noted in most reports as having a 50-75 year lifespan. But it is possible for natural stone to last well over 100 years.
Natural stone can be recycled at the end of its first useful life, which is often well beyond 50-75 years, and is a consideration in the LCA in many cases. Recycling results in energy savings and less impact on the environment, because additional resources are not used to create new materials. (For more information on recycling natural stone see: Saving a Piece of History with Natural Stone.)
Engineered quartz is manufactured through a factory-based process that uses quartz, resin, and other ingredients such as recycled glass, pigments, and additives. The life cycle of engineered quartz begins at the extraction of the materials used in its production, including the minerals and fossil fuels. Most of the materials used are considered to be virgin non-renewable resources and have negative impacts on health and the environment such as nitrates, dioxin, arsenic, lead, and mercury. The typical lifespan of engineered quartz is between 25-30 years.
Energy and resources are considered in the LCA for engineered quartz. Unfortunately, that view does not consider recycling or reusing the material but instead assumes the material will end up in a landfill or get incinerated, which is an energy-intensive process, relies on high heat, and can also emit hazardous gases. When engineered quartz goes to the landfill, more glass, pigments, and additives must be mined, harvested, or refined to replace the discarded item.
The life cycle of porcelain includes seven stages: 1) mining the clay, 2) atomising the clay, 3) production of frits and glazes, 4) production of porcelain/ceramic tiles, 5) distribution, 6) installation and usage, and, on ending their useful life 7) treatment as construction and demolition waste. The main emissions into the atmosphere are related to the movement and grinding of raw materials which are dust and the burning of natural gas during the manufacturing process. The next largest environmental impact occurs when the clay is atomized and then during the distribution of the product. The lifespan of porcelain tile is typically 30-50 years.
Porcelain is also not recycled very often. Tiles are usually adhered with thin-set mortar or a type of epoxy. The mortar almost becomes part of the tile. Even if you can remove the tile, the bottom is very uneven and unsuitable for reuse. So again, resources are used to dispose of the material and to create new porcelain including the clays, stones, quartz, frits, and glazes.
Selecting a Material with a Good Life Cycle
There are many benefits of selecting and installing a material that has a favorable life cycle. First, you will know that your selection is not harmful to the environment or to the occupants of your home. Second, you will also be reducing material consumption by using a material that does not need replacing very often. You will also be choosing a material that can be recycled after its first useful life. This saves money and time over the life of your home and reduces further impacts on the environment.
Be vigilant in your research and ask a lot of questions. Request the data that you need to make an informed and educated decision. You will soon find that natural stone is the best choice for any project based on its low environmental impacts, longevity, and favorable life cycle.
- ANSI/NSC 373 Sustainable Production of Natural Dimension Stone
- Granite Life Cycle Inventory
- Limestone Life Cycle Inventory
- Sandstone Life Cycle Inventory
- Slate Life Cycle Inventory