Amsterdam/Velp, 09 February 2023
THE ROLE OF CERAMIC BUILDING MATERIALS IN A CIRCULAR ECONOMY
In collaboration with Royal Dutch Building Ceramics (KNB), Circle Economy has reviewed the current and future role of ceramic building materials in a circular economy. Circle Economy has confirmed that ceramics are among the more environmentally friendly materials in the Netherlands and elsewhere, with good examples of the reuse of these products. However, to make the Dutch economy fully circular by 2050, the building ceramics sector still has major steps to take. Circle Economy recommends various options for improvement in its report The role of ceramics in the circular economy.
Ceramic products in the built environment include bricks, roof tiles and tiles made of fired clay. This material has a fundamental and unique role in the built environment because of its functional, aesthetic, environmental and cultural-historical values. At the same time, building ceramics are used in a relatively limited quantity, currently representing no more than 5% of the total annual volume of building materials in the Netherlands. Due to their versatility and sustainability, it is hard to imagine a circular future without ceramic building products.
Circle Economy has found that the environmental impact of ceramic products has already been reduced over the years through innovation in the sector, from more efficient heating technologies and product innovation to contributions to nature development during resource extraction. What’s more, building ceramics are produced using locally sourced clay—a renewable resource for the Netherlands, which boasts a continuous clay supply from its delta. Due to their long lifespans and low maintenance requirements, the environmental performance of ceramic products tops most alternatives, such as concrete.
Circle Economy recommends further innovation in emission-free production techniques, new product formulas and alternative business models and partnerships. The sector is already taking the first steps along this path, with a broadening range of detachable products, increasing recycling and reuse and the development of new business models—but this needs to be accelerated.
Circle Economy’s researchers have found that reducing (fossil) energy use and related emissions will be crucial to be able to consider ceramic products circular in the future. The most promising alternatives include the use of sustainable hydrogen and, where possible, renewable electricity for microwave oven technology for clay drying.
Furthermore, Circle Economy recommends investing more in making ceramic products detachable and reusable. A significant portion of ceramic products are already technically reusable, such as paving bricks, ceramic roof tiles and more recently, dry-stacked masonry bricks. However, in practice, ceramic products are often wasted at end-of-life and reuse is often not possible due to the use of adhesives. New business models can help in both cases. With product-as-a-service offerings, for instance, the product remains the property of the manufacturer, giving it control over the total life cycle and improving its ability to innovate on reusability. Products can also be made multifunctional to increase their value: roof tiles with integrated solar panels, for example.
Circle Economy sees supply chain cooperation as a critical success factor in the continued transition to a circular ceramic industry. Cooperation within the sector or with knowledge institutes, construction companies and other construction suppliers will be crucial—as will connecting sustainability challenges to other societal challenges. Going forward, a clear and coherent circular vision for ceramics within a circular building sector will need to be developed.
Circle Economy is an impact organisation with an international team of passionate experts, These support companies, cities and countries with practical and scalable solutions to put the circular economy into practice. Circle Economy's vision is an economic system that ensures the planet and all people can thrive. To combat the climate crisis, Circle Economy is committed to doubling global circularity by 2032.
The organisation Royal Dutch Building Ceramics unites manufacturers of masonry, street and interior wall bricks, ceramic roof tiles and fired wall and floor tiles. These manufacturers innovate continuously to meet new trends and social challenges, including the energy transition and circular economy. KNB represents their collective interests in technical standards, clay extraction, environmental, energy and climate issues and is active in the field of social, economic and technical issues for the brick industry in particular. KNB is based in Velp.