How Eco Friendly Is Ceramic, Really?

It’s raw, beautiful, and is made from natural materials. But just how eco friendly is ceramic, really? We investigate!

By Chere Di Boscio

For millennia, humans have been creating drinking vessels, jugs, plates, vases and even jewellery out of clay. Still today, given the vast variety of materials available to us, clay is still one of the most beautiful and durable options.

Derived directly from the earth, clay is formed into ceramics that are not only useful, but serve as beautiful  home interior design objects. Stoneware, earthenware and porcelain are all sourced from, well, dirt. And when their use is over, they return to their origins: the earth.

There are loads of different kinds of clay, and these will define the object they make. For example, there’s:

  • Kaolin or china clay (used for porcelain)
  • Ball clay (fine-grained, adds plasticity to porcelain clay)
  • Fire clay (highly heat-resistant)
  • Stoneware clay (heat resistant with finer grains)
  • Red clay (used for bricks)

The original source of the material will determine the sustainability of a ceramic. For example, natural mineral clay is excellent for creating beautiful, safe and sustainable pieces you can feel good about using in your home, like vases. Terracotta clay is wonderful for mugs, but not so great for toilets.

Sadly, some modern ceramics actually now add in plastics to make them more durable. So just how eco friendly is ceramic in general?

Image below: GlobeIn

How eco friendly is ceramic?

Is Ceramic Too Hot To Be Eco Friendly?

The case against the material comes mainly from those who note that much energy is used to fire the kilns that harden clay for ceramics. In fact, temperatures in the thousands of degrees are needed. Additionally, many types of glazes require two trips to the kiln to finish. If that energy usually comes from fossil fuels, that’s a pretty heavy environmental footprint for say, a cup.

However, of course the kiln rarely, if ever, contains one small object! Dozens can be baked in one go. Plus, pottery takes less energy to make than glass does. And many ceramicists claim that in larger studios and in industrial pottery making, there are heat recovery systems in place that ensure the building incurs no further need for hot water provision or heating beyond what’s provided by the heat of the kiln.

In fact, some of that heat can even be exported to local community buildings, or even into grow-tunnels to give some warmth to tomatoes and other heat-loving crops. So, that’s pretty good, right?

But there are some other reasons to ask how eco friendly is ceramic, as you can see below.

Un-Green Glazing

Glazed ceramics have the same chemical stability of glass. That’s why you can find ceramic jewellery, cups and other objects that date back thousands of years. That’s not surprising, as unlike glass, glazed ceramic is quite durable. It survives extreme changes in temperature (glass will break if the temperature on one of its surfaces changes much faster than the other). It’s also less fragile than glass in most cases.

So…how eco friendly is ceramic, then, if it can last that long?

Well, that depends on your outlook. Some would argue that durability is sustainability in this case. For example, you’d never think to toss out ceramic cups or plates after one use, as people almost always do with plastic or paper. And while wood and bamboo plates and cups may last much longer than these materials, they are more prone to water damage, scratches and cuts than ceramic is.

But now we need to talk about glazes.

It’s true that there are many harmful chemicals in some these. Most notably lead, which can leach into food and liquids used on ceramic table wear. Glazes with lead are especially harmful if not disposed of correctly.

On the other hand, there is also a wide variety of beautiful, non-toxic glazes available, too. And of course, for jugs, pots for plants and many other household objects, you can find unglazed pottery that’s pretty much just baked earth.

Greener Glazing

There are today some companies that aim to make glazed pottery greener. For example? Denby in the UK.

This is a ceramics brand that’s greenifying ceramics with their Kiln Green range. This range not only uses non-toxic glaze, but also recycles them to ensure nothing goes to waste. Denby is also proudly the first UK tableware manufacturer to send zero process waste to landfill.

But that’s not all! In addition, they extract their clay from areas where the clay is returned to pasture and landscaped. Because Denby’s quality standards are so high, any clay with faults isn’t trashed, it’s recycled. This equates to 550 tonnes of raw clay saved each year.

So, yes, in short, there are indeed some pottery companies that are more conscious than most. In general, look for small artisans who hand-make their pieces, and ask what their ethical practices are.

The Bottom Line

So, how eco friendly is ceramic, then? Well, despite the energy needed to fire a kiln, if the heat is well managed and distributed, and if no toxic materials are added to the clay or in the finish, it seems there are few materials around that are as durable and eco-friendly as ceramics.

Ceramics are also sometimes the best possible option for certain objects. For example, ceramic tiling in the bathroom may have a lower CO2 footprint than importing stone like granite or marble. Ceramic pans are also much healthier to use than Teflon ones. And can you even imagine toilets or dental implants made from anything else?

We love raw, primitive ceramics not only for their eco-credentials. But also because of the infinite variety of shape, form and texture they can take on.

Ceramics reflect the potential beauty of what happens when natural materials are transformed by human creativity. In short, it’s artistic – and practical. What’s not to love?

Chere Di Boscio
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7 thoughts on “How Eco Friendly Is Ceramic, Really?”

  1. Pingback: Is ceramic material biodegradable?  - Our Lovely Earth

  2. Pingback: Is ceramics biodegradable? - Our Lovely Earth

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  4. I think the subject was approached with a bias. Perhaps it was the love for ceramics that played down its CO2 footprint. Then the write up has cushioned it from all and any argument one can throw at it. The writer has made every effort to seek them out and downplay them. Almost artistic programming of the reader.

    But see if you can deny this one.

    Ceramic does not disintegrate for thousands of years – think what is often found at archeological diggings from prehistoric times.
    The baked clay never re-enters the ecological cycle. Does it?
    So a build-up of ceramic is on. Not on the cards, it is actually on. Now you can dig any area where humans lived and you will find pieces of pottery and ceramic. Alongside, it’s similarly robust partner, plastics.

    The writer did not touch this angle. I think it was ignored – either purposefully, or secondary to bias.

    1. Interesting points! However, I believe most ceramics that survive the course of time were just ‘lucky’. Most ceramics – especially terracotta – gets pulverised and crushed to dust over the centuries. What you say is true about heavily glazed/enamelled works, though.

  5. Is it possible to combine ethical eco friendly tableware such as bamboo with lacquer to get a hybrid of bamboo/ceramic? Something that is more durable but also biodegradable.

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