Ceramics & Environmental Change

I came across two articles about ceramic tiles used in architecture, and how that usage impacts the environment. One article reflected an upbeat note on innovative applications to reduce energy consumption and thereby positively impact the environment. The second article was more sombre. Let’s look at the upbeat topic first.

LockClad terracotta tiles, described in a Design and Innovation blog post, are new ceramic materials used in architecture to protect the exterior of building from rain and other environmental elements. The tiles are manufactured in such a way as to easily slide on aluminum rails installed on the exterior of a building. Product photos may help communicate the idea:

From the photos you can get an idea of the applications on flat and curved surfaces. There are 2 main benefits these ceramic tiles. First, they are easily affixed to the exterior of a building. Second, they provide efficient insulation and therefore conserve energy use within the building. Sounds great, right?

Then I read the sombre article. It was published in the New York Times on Dec 3, 2021, and is entitled “A Slow-Motion Climate Disaster: The Spread of Barren Land.” (To be clear, the NYTimes article was NOT about production of LockClad tiles.)

Photo by Victor Moriyama for the New York Times

The NYTimes piece documents the environmental impact of harvesting large amounts of clay for ceramic tiles in northeastern Brazil. Clay from the area is heavily mined, molded into clay roof tiles, and fired in wood-burning stoves. Thousands and thousands of clay tiles are produced and shipped to other areas of Brazil. In the wake of this ceramic production, large land areas are devolving into desert. The clay, holding rich minerals and nutrients, is taken off the land. Large quantities of water are mixed with the clay and then evaporate as the tiles dry. And huge amounts of wood from the area is cut to burn in large kilns.

We all know that the world is facing severe environmental challenges. Many of us are trying, in our small ways, to minimize our adverse effects on the environment. I’m now buying my clay from local Colorado sources rather than purchasing clay that’s been shipped from 600 miles / 1,000 KM away. But as the two articles above illustrate, there’s rarely a perfect solution to any problem. Nevertheless, we can make a difference at the margins. Little things can add up, especially if widely adopted. For example, if each of us exchanges our conventional light bulbs for LED bulbs, it doesn’t impact any one of us a lot but in the aggregate we will save a LOT of energy.

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