Sustainability

Earth Friendly Fabricators: Raising the Bar in Countertop Culture

Progressive fabricators are starting to incorporate sustainable business practices into their operations.

By Matthew Bodoff, Jessica McNaughton & P. “Max” Le Pera

People have pushed back against “green” for decades, but the reality is that our planet is being damaged by air and water pollution at an alarming rate, and our natural resources are severely depleted as we demand more and more at the expense of our planet. It is easy to feel far removed from this in an industry where we are consumer-facing and are indulgent to customers’ needs whether it be granite, solid surface, quartz, porcelain, sintered stone or any number of other products.

There is great hope, however, and it can be found in the developing and expanding cultural values of our “next-gens.” The new homebuyer, the new kitchen remodeler or the new designer—they are choosing materials based not just on aesthetics, but the genesis: where it came from and how it got here. Following right behind Millenials are our teenage Gen Zs who will be reared in the growing paradigm of sustainability and all it portends in renewable energy and the 4 R’s: reduce, reuse, recycle and repurpose.

Progressive fabricators are aware of this, and for the last several years many of them have started to incorporate sustainable business practices into their operations.

The adoption of these environmental practices can be broken into three phases:

  • Phase One: Offering “green” products, product transparency, water reclamation programs and renewable energy
  • Phase Two: Focusing on offering optimized products, waste reclamation and employee health
  • Phase Three: Supply chain/enterprise integration, closed-loop fabrication and operations, sustainable fabrication certifications, circularity and synergy, and leveraging next-generation technology

While this article dives into these three phases as they apply to surface fabricators, this progression also applies to manufacturers and distributors and has already started to take place in those areas. We will expand upon their roles when we get to Phase Three during which this whole ecosystem takes on a more well-defined framework poised for virtually unlimited growth and efficacy.

Phase One — The Good Steward
Early adopters who latched on to the idea of respecting the environment in their operations were quick to support products made with large amounts of recycled materials, including several brands of solid surface and quartz, but also recycled glass surfaces from vendors like GEOS, IceStone and Vetrazzo, as well as recycled paper products like PaperStone and Richlite. It was a relatively easy first step to say that you were “eco-friendly” by just supporting the brands that made those claims themselves and was a relatively low-cost way to get into the game.

Other fabricators went further, like Rockin’teriors in Raleigh, N.C., who insisted on curating their offerings and vetting their vendors and brands to ensure they supported their mission of sustainability. When sintered stone came to market, they quickly embraced brands like Dekton, Lapitec and Neolith and their resin-free, mineral-based composition, becoming one of the premier fabricators of these materials in their market. Rockin’teriors also embraced sustainability as part of its corporate culture, maintaining an exceptionally clean facility with a complete water recapture system that was integrated into the construction of the initial facility. They also embraced a completely wet cutting and finishing system, so as to protect employees from airborne crystalline silica.

Beyond materials, renewable energy is a relatively low-cost way to get into the sustainability game, and solar panels can be added to lower energy costs, along with using skylights as a natural lighting option. These additions are not free, but the ROI can be realized quickly, as evidenced by Indeko, one of the leading fabricators in Mexico, who, after observing the installation of solar panels at an ISFA Roundtable hosted by GECKO Solid Surface Solutions, added these energy-saving panels on their own facility.

At the GECKO facility where Indeko was inspired to take on the solar panel installation, Augie Chavez, CEO of GECKO, also had installed a rainwater recapture system to mitigate the use of municipal water, further lessening the impact that the facility has on the environment.

Other important Phase One environmental efforts include OSHA compliance, offering personal protective equipment (PPE) for employees, and having programs and internal audits to ensure that safety measures and protocols are being implemented. Ventilation, air monitoring and wet systems are crucial and no longer considered a “nice to have” as the silicosis crisis besets the industry. These programs are critical and employee health and safety have now crossed over into environmental efforts. The environment inside your facility and the impact on your team is as important, if not more, than the environment outside that your operations are impacting. People are what drive a company’s success and protecting them is imperative.

These Phase One steps are relatively easy, and signal to customers that these facilities and the people that are taking care of them and their projects really do care. Some argue that customers don’t care and the bottom line is dollars and cents. This is the case in many instances, but why lose customers that do care when you can take relatively low-cost steps to signal you care about the environment in which you live, and the environment in which your employees work.

Sustainability, Circlular economy and recycling

Phase Two — What’s Inside and Out
Once a fabrication shop has established its baseline commitment to environmental stewardship, it is likely that the business will continue seeking opportunities to further improve and align. Possibilities lie both in and outside of the facility. Inside the shop, improvements could be made to indoor air quality, more energy-efficient lighting, the amount of paper being used, and water reclamation programs. Outside options include finding ways to mitigate the impact on the local environment through emissions abatement, water treatment and irrigation, precipitation capture and use, and moving to renewable energy.

So what is the next step for fabricators to be better environmental stewards? The No. 1 thing every business should have is a “Business Sustainability Plan.” This is a living document explaining how the company wants to pursue environmental responsibility. It will also include detailed actions required of all employees to ensure that they behave in an environmentally sustainable way, and not just paying lip service to a new idea. Finally, many companies, including large global manufacturers such as INEOS, have begun to tie employee safety, health and environmental stewardship to their financial bonus scheme. This monetization of health and safety performance encourages the whole team to work together to build a safer and better workplace.

Manufacturers also continue to push themselves in factory operations, local environmental impact and material composition. Europe is ever increasing its profoundly influential position in the surfacing space. This leadership, coupled with the environmental standards expected in that part of the world, drives those companies to push each other to minimize their health impacts.

Improvements to ingredients used in surfacing products such as the elimination of nonrenewable-based resins, silica or harmful elements are being developed at a record pace. Partially driven by the silicosis concerns with crystalline silica, new products using safer alternatives will become more commonplace in the next several years.

Environmental stewardship in surfacing materials has evolved significantly over the last decade. What began as a movement in the manufacturing of the surfaces trying to use recycled materials, such as stone remnants, glass and mirror, has now become a group of fully evolved brands that believe creating environmentally responsible products is key to their brand ethos.

What was once a niche marketing effort for a select group of customers now has to be considered mainstream in the purchasing decisions for all consumers. According to Silestone Product Manager Alba Gilabert Garcia, “The reality is that after the COVID-19 situation, the end consumer and society, in general, have become much more aware of sustainability. Between two products of the same design and performance, the one that is more sustainable will be sold.”

On the quartz surfacing front, there are many brands that offer colors that have recycled content that earns LEED points. Product lines, such as ECO by Cosentino, Compac’s Obsidiana and Diresco’s Bio-UV Quartz, have found ways to use a majority of, or even 100 percent, recycled materials without sacrificing beauty or durability.

Growing in popularity are a class of surfaces loosely known as “sintered surfaces” (a designation afforded by the predominant manufacturing process of sintering), which are actively promoting their environmental friendliness marketing messages. These materials are devoid of resins making them strong candidates for more cost-effective recycling and reuse. Some manufacturers are touting 100 percent water recycling and other sustainable operational aspects of their business furthering their alignment with trending more eco-friendly preferences.

Solid surfacing materials have historically been above average when it comes to recycling of their end products. The very nature of the material makes it reasonable and cost-effective to recycle either as new products or chopped up to be used as a raw material for new aesthetics. Durat, a solid surface manufacturer in Finland, and Alkemi by Renewed Materials, Inc. are brands that are not only leading but pushing the sustainable story in solid surface by using a substantial portion of post-industrial waste, such as metals and plastics, in their manufacturing processes.

Phase Three — It’s Time To “CEASE” Waste
CEASE is an acronym for Circular Economy, Alignment, Synergy, Energy. Phases 1 and 2 saw the initiation and continued maturation of sustainable efforts on the parts of fabricators and manufacturers. Phase 3 represents a calibration of efforts to create alignment in the enterprise chain. It is denoted by the last “E” in CEASE, which represents the possibility of combining numerous waste streams (wood, paper, cardboard, food waste, construction waste, PVC, plastic bottles and polymers, etc.) to be the raw materials needed to create clean and safe energy.

The term “circular economy” has become part of our everyday language. It broadly describes any process or system that is able to keep resources in use for as long as possible and, ultimately at the end of their “useful” life, weave in the ability to recover and recycle/regenerate them.

The circular economic model interlaces several independent doctrines such as biomimicry, the blue economy, cradle-to-cradle and “natural” capitalism. As a result, there will be numerous societal, economic, environmental and business benefits. The model aims at building a restorative existence, not one of runaway depletion and waste.

Alignment and synergy are separate but symbiotic concepts. Alignment is a measure that supports interconnectedness between fabricators, distributors and manufacturers, as well as designers, specifiers and end users. This could mean ensuring materials can and will eventually be reclaimed, or it could mean that jobs that require some degree of eco-friendly products be distributed and converted to finished goods by those who are “walking the walk” on the sustainable journey. It could also be establishing benchmarks requiring some degree of accountability to maintain and grow a “green-friendly” organization.

The thinking here is that with alignment comes a creation of energies, and collaborations are optimizers and opportunity-based cost eliminators.

Energy is essential to life and therefore sustainability. Everything requires some form of energy to work or exist, whether thermal, kinetic, chemical, nuclear or electrical. The demands for energy are nearly endless and constantly increasing. Therefore, an integral part of the sustainable journey includes not only safer, cleaner and more efficient forms of energy, but also renewable energy. Some examples are wind energy, water wave energy, solar energy — all freely provided resources. Our challenge is to learn to harness them in a clean, safe and cost-efficient way. Fantastic strides are being made to these ends. However, using waste streams for energy is a sleeper that is looming, and is potentially more bountiful, less expensive to harness at scale and whose technology is fundamentally rooted in proprietary science that will soon make its global appearance.

Albert Einstein proved the equivalence of matter and energy more than a century ago, and yet converting matter to energy in a safe, cost effective and environmentally safe way for use in smaller scales other than the nuclear furnace of the core of the sun has been elusive until now.

There are truly next-generation technologies emerging that convert waste into synthetic gas or even a crude oil (depending on the influence). It may be that using one of these technologies on a societal scale in which waste streams can be combined will give rise to copious amounts of lean energy.

Microgrids are a real possibility and can be fueled by your waste! Junk mailers, cardboard, any type of wood including wooden pallets and skids, landscape trimmings and clippings, paper, clothing waste, food waste, plastic bottles, toys, carpeting, siding, PVC, cabinets, flooring, tires, and more can all be converted into energy. This illustrates the powerful effect Phase 3 will have on the entire sustainable paradigm. With alignment comes plans to recycle commercial waste streams, which sadly are not nearly as regulated as residential or industrial waste streams. By all measures, commercial waste is many fold that of residential, and yet most businesses are not required to recycle. Phase 3 will see alignment among businesses of all kinds within a community banding together to redirect their waste from landfills into a waste-based energy system where they can reap some rewards.

Phase 3 would perhaps be better called “Phase 3+” to signify there may not be a discrete end to the sustainable story and allow for an ever-increasing elevation in scope and sophistication of the sustainable journey for the enterprise and surrounding communities.

Fabricators, distributors, manufacturers, designers, architects, commercial property owners and anyone else who has a stake in the health and wellness of our planet collectively can play a tremendous role in preserving it and natural resources. However, they must proactively choose to begin or further their sustainable journey. ISFA will continue to look into sustainability and what that portends for the building materials industry. A designation known as LEEF Certification — Leadership in Energy and Environmental Fabrication — will help distinguish those who champion focus and commitment to the sustainable journey.

Indeed, the sustainable framework is a dynamic one as the actions within each phase will certainly continue to evolve and remain interconnected. The individual actions taken by all parties in Phases 1, 2 and 3(+) add to the overall effectiveness of the conservation of energy and natural resources. It is the cooperation and alignment of the parties and the phases that produce real results worthy of making a tangible and positive impact on the global environment and our communities.

May we never forget our obligation to leave this world to our future generations in a state better than we found it.

 

About the Authors
Matthew Bodoff is a business development manager for INEOS Composites focusing on its North American engineered stone business. He has more than 20 years of experience in the composites industry, especially around the use of polyester resins in various building and construction applications. During his time with INEOS Composites (formerly known as Ashland Specialty Resins), Matthew traveled the globe working with quartz slab producers and equipment manufacturers. He can be reached at matthew.bodoff@ashland.com.

Jessica McNaughton, a former ISFA board member, is president of CaraGreen, a curator and distributor of best-in-class sustainable materials based in Raleigh, N.C. CaraGreen offers healthy alternatives to traditional building materials and serves as an educator on industry issues that have a human or environmental health impact, with several education courses on the latest green building standards and trends in the industry. She can be reached via email at jessica@caragreen.com or on the web at www.caragreen.com.

Paul “Max” Le Pera is president and founder of Global Surfacing Alliance LLC, a global consortium of partnerships, alliances and ventures primarily devoted to sourcing and launching both proprietary products and disruptive technologies. His business touches myriad industries including, renewable energy, building materials, plumbing and cannabis (industrial hemp), to name a few. Paul is both a member of the Board and vice president of Global Standards for ISFA. He can be reached at PMax@GlobalSurfacingAlliance.com.

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