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tile flooring

Is Tile Flooring Sustainable?

By Tobias Roberts Rise Writer
Nov 9, 2020

When it comes time to replace an old carpet that contains pet dander, dust, and other allergens, there are several sustainable flooring options available to homeowners. While non-toxic carpeting and wood flooring might be great options for a living room or bedroom, many people prefer the look, versatility, and resiliency that tile flooring offers. Tile floors are standard in kitchens, bathrooms, mudrooms, and other areas where heavy traffic and moisture are common. 

Claire Thomas Fireclay
Photo Credit: Claire Thomas via Fireclay

Your MDF laminate flooring will probably need to be replaced in under a decade, and carpets have an average lifespan of just five years. In contrast, ceramic tile floors are enduring enough to last a lifetime as they are spill and dent resistant. In 2017 alone, over three billion square feet of ceramic tiles were consumed in the US. This consumption consists of tiles produced and purchased in the United States, those imported, and those exported. Many homeowners prefer the durability of ceramic tile flooring for areas of their homes that receive heavy usage and traffic. But, most people ignore the fact that ceramic tile flooring can be sustainable and environmentally friendly flooring alternative.

James Hex Porcelain Tile All Modern
James Hex Porcelain Tile. Photo Credit: All Modern

What are Tiles Made From?

The smooth, glossy finish of a newly laid tile floor probably doesn't remind you of nature. Virtually all tiles come from natural materials such as clay, porcelain, feldspar, pottery stone, silica sand, and talc. Other types of tiles that offer a more rustic look can include materials such as slate, travertine, granite, and limestone. 

Unlike other flooring options, the vast majority of ceramic tiles do not include any synthetic elements. The glaze applied to the tile's ceramic "body" is made from silica, alumina, and flux. When fired, these elements combine to create the colorful, glossy finish that allows homeowners to create a versatile and unique flooring for specific areas of their home.

Revival Josephina Shaw Tiles
Revival Josephina Tiles. Photo Credit: Shaw Floors

What Are the Environmental Benefits of Tile Flooring?

Indoor Air Quality

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) compromise the interior air quality at home through dozens of different household products, including several flooring options. Many new carpets release 4-Phenyl Cyclohexane (4-PC), a potent VOC that emanates from chemical reactions between the styrene and butadiene latex found in carpeting backing. Wood floors, and especially laminate flooring, might also include formaldehyde, another potentially dangerous household VOC. Because tiles come from natural elements, they don't release VOCs into the home.

Ceramic tiles are fired at high temperatures in pottery kilns. This process essentially "kills off" any VOCs that might have been present in the original material. Unlike the glues and adhesives used in laying carpeting and wood floors, cement mortar is used for laying tile and doesn't give off any additional VOCs. For the finishing work, it is easy to find no-VOC grouts. You can periodically polish your ceramic tile flooring with vinegar and water instead of chemical cleaners. 

As an added bonus, the smooth surface of ceramic tile flooring will not harbor dust mites, mold, pet dander, germs, or bacteria. For people who suffer from allergies, replacing carpet with ceramic tile flooring is a straightforward way to improve your health. 

Embodied Energy

In terms of the embodied energy, tile flooring is heavy and requires a large amount of energy to move from one area to the next. However, it is usually possible to find ceramic tile manufacturers in your region, allowing homeowners to source locally and thus cut down on hidden transportation costs. Browse through extensive lists of ceramic tile manufacturers in both the United States and Canada

Energy Efficiency.

Ceramic tile flooring also offers energy efficiency benefits for a sustainable home. Because it is a dense and heavy material made from sand and clay, ceramic tiles increase the thermal mass of a dwelling. In houses that take advantage of passive solar design, ceramic tile flooring can store the sun's heat and thus warm your home during the cooler evening hours. 

Wood Look Tile Shaw Floors
Wood Look Tile. Photo Credit: Shaw Floors

Recycled Content

After a lifetime of use, it is possible to recycle old ceramic and porcelain tiles for other purposes. Several tile manufacturers, like Shaw Floors and Daltile, incorporate recycled content into the tiles they make. This recycled content can come from residues from the industrial processing of sand and scrap tile. This material is then reprocessed and combined with post-consumer glass waste and left-over glazes from the tiles' final processing.

Home Certification Programs

For homeowners looking to build or remodel their home to and achieve LEED certification, ceramic tile can contribute toward LEED points in the following areas: 

  • Local Production (Materials and Resources Credit 2 [MRc2] - Option 1)
  • Recycled Materials (Materials and Resources Credit 2 [MRc2] - Option 2)
  • Low-Emitting Products (Indoor Environmental Quality Credit 7 [EQc7])
Green Squared Certification
Green Squared Certification

Green Squared Certification

For homeowners looking for the most sustainable ceramic tiles on the market, the Green Squared Certification is an accreditation program designed explicitly for the tile industry. This certification program the ANSI process, combined with third-party certification, to evaluate and validate tile products. The program addresses product characteristics, manufacturing, end-of-life management, progressive corporate governance, and innovation in their holistic sustainability criteria. Finding ceramic tile flooring that is Green Squared Certified will ensure that the flooring in your home is both environmentally and socially responsible. The Green Squared certification could also contribute to LEED and NAHB Green Building Standard points.

ModernTile WhyTile
Photo Credit: WhyTile.com

What Are the Environmental Costs of Tile Flooring?

The main drawback to ceramic tile flooring is the location factor. If you purchase 2,000 square feet of heavy tile produced in China, there will be a significant carbon footprint associated with manufacturing and shipping across the world. Because the raw materials for making tile flooring are found almost everywhere worldwide, there is little need to transport ceramic tiles long distances. 

Add to that, the firing process to finish ceramic tiles requires exceptionally high temperatures. Since many kilns depend on fossil fuel energy, this process also creates a sizeable carbon footprint. Today, innovative tile manufacturers are working on heat recovery systems to heat their buildings and could maybe even export that heat to their surrounding community. This process would reduce the negative environmental impact of the manufacturing process. 

Because tiles are incredibly hard and inert, a quality, properly installed tile floor should be durable enough to last a lifetime. These properties help to reduce some of the environmental costs associated with the manufacturing process.

How Much Do Ceramic Tiles Cost?

At an average cost of $2 to $7 per square foot, tiles often cost significantly less per square foot than other comparable flooring options. 

Merola Tile Berkeley Blue Home Depot
Merola Tile Berkeley Blue. Photo Credit: Home Depot

Tiles also last much longer and require little if any maintenance. They come in a beautiful palette of colors and designs and can allow you to add a touch of color and uniqueness to your home while also limiting its carbon footprint.

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2020-11-19T19:02:49+0000
Tobias Roberts

Article by:

Tobias Roberts

Tobias runs an agroecology farm and a natural building collective in the mountains of El Salvador. He specializes in earthen construction methods and uses permaculture design methods to integrate structures into the sustainability of the landscape.