Mother Earth Living

A Guide to Sustainable Tile

Available in recycled glass, ceramic and clay, today's varied sustainable tile options offer beauty and durability.
By Ginevra Holtkamp
September/October 2011
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Oceanside Glasstile recycles more than 2 million pounds of post-consumer glass each year to create stunning mosaic tiles. Available in every color of the rainbow, some shades are more sustainable than others. For example, Midori (Iridescent shown) contains 30 percent pre-consumer and 64 percent post-consumer recycled content, whereas Red contains 55 percent post-industrial content but no post-consumer.
Photo Courtesy Oceanside Glasstile
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Graphic, colorful, translucent, luminous—the right tile can bring new energy to an entire room. Tile is versatile, durable, stain and heat-resistant, and easy to clean, making it a good choice for lasting style. Covering kitchen countertops or bathroom floors with gorgeous colors and patterns, ranging from modern to classic, can make over a space all on its own. Most tile isn’t cheap. The good news for those of us on a budget is that eye-catching choices make a statement even in a small space, such as one bright backsplash or a bathroom accent wall.

What’s more, eco-friendly tile manufacturers are transforming reclaimed, recycled material into fabulous décor, and more options become available all the time. Consider the depth and complexity of recycled glass, the tradition and durability of upcycled ceramic, the individuality and craftsmanship of handmade clay, and the ingenuity and comfort of cork. Today’s tile manufacturers combine beauty and sustainability, giving conscientious homeowners plenty of options. Those who want to do the upcycling themselves have options, too; check local salvage yards, scheduled-for-demolition homes and Habitat for Humanity ReStores (habitat.org/restore) for old tiles you can rescue and reuse.

The Right Tile for the Job 

The first consideration when choosing a tile is where you’re planning to use it, which will help determine the level of durability and waterproofing you need. Nearly all tiles are safe for use on walls or as backsplashes. For flooring and showers, you need extra durability. Most manufacturers recommend using matte finishes for floors, because glossy finishes scratch more easily. For countertops, choose acid-resistant glazes. For bathrooms, make sure tiles are water-resistant. You might plan to use tile for an outdoor application; if so, it’s best to contact the manufacturer to ask about water- and frost-resistance.

Once you’ve determined that your tile choice is suitable for your application, it’s time for the fun stuff: size, color and pattern. Tiles come in a range of styles and sizes, and while some may be more suitable for certain applications, size and style is, for the most part, a matter of preference. Consider the size of your tiles in relation to the size of the space you wish to cover—large tiles in a small space can help make the area feel larger; small tiles covering a large area can look busy.

To determine how much you’ll need, first measure the area you wish to cover in square feet. Then take a look at how many tiles fit in one square foot and multiply. For example, if you choose a 1-inch square tile, you’ll need 164 tiles to cover a square foot, whereas 16 3-inch tiles fit in a square foot. Most manufacturers offer size charts and recommend ordering 10 percent more tile than you need to cover unforeseen mistakes or miscalculations.

Well Made 

Most tile options get a few health and environmental points from the get-go: Tile is durable, nontoxic and inert, easy to clean, insect-resistant and recyclable. To take it a step further, choose tile made of a responsibly sourced material such as rapidly renewable cork or recycled content. If you’re shopping for recycled tiles, look for those with the highest percentage of post-consumer content. This indicates that the tile materials were once another item—say, a glass bottle—and have been diverted from the landfill waste stream. Post-industrial recycled content, on the other hand, is scrap from the manufacturing process. Make sure tiles made of natural materials such as cork were harvested sustainably. Cork is a particularly great option from an environmental and comfort perspective because it can be harvested from the bark of the cork oak tree every few years without damaging the tree, and its absorbency helps dampen sound. Another tile option, clay, is environmentally benign for the most part, but it does require energy and landscape disturbance to mine, and firing clay tiles requires massive amounts of energy. Clay tile manufacturers that are even partially fueled by a clean energy source save tons of carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere. It’s always wise to ask manufacturers about their material sourcing and production techniques. Some manufacturers take extra steps such as processing and reusing wastewater on-site or reducing electricity demands with daylit factories. If nothing else, your interest shows that consumers are searching for home products that are made with health and sustainability in mind.

Installation Info 

Unless you’re an accomplished do-it-yourselfer, it’s best to hire a professional installer. Tiles aren’t cheap, and you don’t want to waste your investment with a poor installation. If you use an installer, it’s wise to select the professional before you order the tile. Their expertise can help ensure you order the correct amount and type for the job. If you’re going it alone and you’ve never tiled a wall or countertop before, consider taking a few classes first. Check local home improvement centers for class offerings. You can also get instructions online (to watch how-to videos, visit The Tile Shop and click the DIY tab) or in remodeling books such as Tile Your World by John P. Bridge.

Whether you hire a pro or do it yourself, make sure you use low-VOC installation and finishing products to protect your health and indoor air quality. For most tile installations, you’ll need tile adhesive, grout and grout sealer. Low-VOC versions of all of these products are available. It’s important that your adhesive, grout and sealant be waterproof if you are using them in the bathroom, and heat-proof if you’re using them in the kitchen. See Resources below for eco-friendly options.

Resources 

Tiles 

Ann Sacks
Eco-Thinking recycled-content collection employs low-energy manufacturing methods

Bedrock Industries
handmade in Seattle from 100 percent recycled glass

Bungalow Bill
vintage and antique tiles

Clayhaus Ceramics
made with 100 percent renewable energy in Portland, Oregon

Coverings Etc
Cradle to Cradle-certified tiles

Eco Friendly Flooring
recycled glass and metal tile

EcoSpec Tile
subway tiles made in California; locally sourced recycled content

Ellen Blakeley
mosaics made with salvaged tempered glass and found objects

Encore Ceramics
single-fired manufacturing powered by solar and wind

Fireclay Tile
recycled ceramic tiles made in California; 112 lead-free glazes

Florida Tile
recycled-content porcelain tiles

Habitus Collection
recycled cork mosaics

Interstyle
recycled glass tile and mosaics

Modwalls
recycled glass tile and pebbles; cork penny round mosaics

Monocibec
sustainable indoor-outdoor porcelain tile

Oceanside Glasstile
recycled glass tile and mosaics

Terra Green Ceramics
ceramic tile certified by Scientific Certification Systems (SCS)

Trikeenan
reclaimed brick; recycled glass and ceramic tiles; closed-loop system; VOC-free glazes

Trend Group
recycled glass tile and engineered agglomerates

Walker Zanger
eco lines include Sobu, Studio Moderne, Vintage Glass, Weave and Waterfall

Low-VOC Adhesive, Grout and Sealant 

AFM Safecoat
LEED-qualified MexeSeal, WaterShield and Grout Sealer

Eco-Wise
nontoxic adhesives and sealers

Laticrete
Greenguard-certified mortar and grout


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