Countertops Magazine Archive

Capitalizing on Recycled Glass-based Materials


By Robert Baxter

If you travel up and down the East Coast, one thing you will hear repeatedly is that “green is good.” From architects, designers, millwork companies, fabricators and, yes, even homeowners, the message is clear. Environmental stewardship is on many people’s minds and every one of us needs to do our part to ensure the sustainability of the resources we consume. We as a society need to improve on the products we manufacture, work with and buy. Every major industry, from high-tech product developers to automobile manufacturers, is telling the public all about the good they are doing with regards to saving the planet. Companies use less paper, cities create roads specially for high-occupancy vehicles, and waste is now separated into recyclable materials versus garbage. Everywhere we look we see a call to action for environmental responsibility. This includes a corporate responsibility where businesses must do their part as well.

In few other industries is the consumption of raw materials more prevalent than in the building industry. Just look at what it takes to build a new high rise, student dormitory housing, school or an entire residential development. That said, the need for understanding and implementing sustainability within the surfacing industry has never been more crucial. Every effort counts, and using recycled materials is a good place to do our part. But if recycled materials are going to become readily used and specified, then they have to appeal to the bottom line. They have to be profitable for those utilizing them. That is just the way industry and commerce is. All good intentions are just that – good intentions – unless they are practical for actual use.

The good news is that recycled materials are profitable for everyone in the value chain. Compared to other premium offerings, recycled materials can and do compete on value and cost levels. Recycled materials are, in many cases, just as affordable now as other popular materials, such as quartz and natural stone products.

Additionally, the architectural and design community has been paving the way for the use of more eco-friendly surfacing materials. Historically the architectural and design community has been attracted to new and unique options. Designers and architects also have led the way in understanding sustainability and the importance it plays in the life cycle of the projects they design. Without their influence and creative ability to incorporate sustainable products into their designs there would be little use for these materials.

Companies can no longer hide behind the excuse that recycled materials are too expensive or not attractive enough to use for both commercial and residential projects. In the long run it is actually more expensive to not use recycled materials because of the ever increasing surplus of waste that is all too abundant across the globe. It costs a lot of money to deal with these growing waste materials. Furthermore, recycling material creates new jobs, lessens our carbon footprint on the environment and reclaims material that would either go to landfills or be burned and cause harm to the atmosphere. At the same time, we can send a message to our children and future generations that being environmentally conscientious is the right thing to do.

Of course those are all wonderful benefits, but what has really helped make this product category start trending upwards is the amazing and wonderful aesthetic that products containing recycled materials offer to end users.

There are literally dozens, if not hundreds, of surfacing materials now on the market that utilize recycled components. More common materials, such as laminate, solid surface, tile and quartz surfacing all have versions that use recycled components. And there are a whole host of newer materials now on the market as well. These surfaces use both pre- and post-consumer (and industrial) wastes, ranging from paper to metals and just about everything in between. One element gaining in use is recycled glass.

Why Recycled Glass?
Materials using recycled glass capture a look that is both brilliant as well as progressive. But beyond that, why use glass? Think of all the industries that use glass: beverage, automobile, home decor, window and door manufacturers and countless others. All of these industries generate glass products that will eventually make their way into the waste stream. In 2010, the EPA reported that 5 percent of all landfill material was glass. Because glass is made of molten sand, it never really decomposes. This leaves us with a global surplus of glass. Therefore, post-consumer and post-industrial glass are readily available – what better use for it than to continue its life cycle and incorporate it into a new material? With such a plentiful resource why would we not capitalize on using glass wherever possible? However, perhaps just as important, is that the inviting and unique look of recycled glass-based materials has inspired the design community and caused it to embrace these surfaces as chosen alternatives.

Another factor to consider is how that product fabricates. Products that are challenging to fabricate or have questionable integrity are likely to be avoided. Recycled glass-based materials that use resin-based binders, however, generally allow for ease of fabrication and have high material strength and durability. Resin binders allow the raw material to co-exist with the particulates and or other materials that may be added to give the product its appearance and random particulate dispersion. These binders are commonly found in products such as quartz surfacing and solid surface, which have long standing résumés for dependability and performance. Fabricators can play a vital role in the products that are used today. Their influence spreads far and if they do not want to work with a particular material because of fabrication difficulties, they will (and do) push back with designers, builders and other end users alike.

Another point to consider is the care and maintenance of the material. Glass requires very little maintenance. Those glass-based surfacing materials that use resin binders require no sealers, and special cleaners are not necessary. Glass-based products resist heat and scratching as well as any surfacing product on the market (although trivets are always recommended, as with any product). Most glass-based materials can be repaired if necessary when damaged, and most manufacturers offer lengthy warranties for their materials so as to give the end user the assurance that their product is worth the investment.

Conversely recycled materials like glass are not for every application. If a traditional, old world look is wanted, then this product might not fit that design element. Another drawback would be in respect to the color pallet. If a darker color is desired, then recycled glass materials will only provide limited options. Also, recycled materials, although not expensive, will not provide a basement-level budgetary solution. They will, however, provide a very good return on investment because of their sustainability, product integrity, multi-thickness gauges and large slab sizes, which will provide solid yields for many different sized projects.

Going Beyond the Material
One of the greatest allies recycled materials have is the Web and the various social media sites that promote the benefits and features of sustainable materials. These social media sites play a pivotal role because they allow providers the ability to promote and build their brands without the use of printed materials. Companies must and should utilize as many forms of sustainable marketing as possible. It is imperative to consider the full life cycle sustainability of your efforts – from marketing to installation. Sample boxes made from recycled materials, recycled paper and electronic forms for administrative purposes all contribute to the ongoing effort to maximize what can be reused or conserved. Make sure the recycled materials you are using are LEED certified and use low (or no) volatile organic compounds (VOCs) so you (and your customers) get the most out of them. Not all materials are manufactured the same, so take the time to find out what the chemical structure and recycled content are. Ideally, a reclamation program should exist or be in the creation phase. Too many times products that are removed from use after many years of serving their purpose are overlooked. Having a program in place that finds a new use for these materials in lieu of sending them to a landfill, such as donating them to Habitat for Humanity, significantly adds to one’s sustainability efforts. Making sure that the life cycle of these products extends long after installation is vital to achieving true sustainability.

As we move into the future, disposal of the resources we have used becomes a greater concern. It only makes good business and ethical sense to utilize these resources to produce long-lasting and beautiful products. If we want to minimize our carbon footprint and our impact on the environment, we must understand and implement sustainability wherever we can. Everybody wins when high-quality and profitable recycled materials that don’t pose fabrication challenges are used in the building industry.

About the Author
Robert Baxter, regional sales manager for EOS Surfaces, is a 24 year veteran of the countertop industry, having worked at the manufacturing, distribution and fabrication levels. His range of knowledge includes home center, commercial and residential markets. His core focus is now on sustainability and how surfacing materials can positively impact the industry. He can be reached at (410) 829-6642, [email protected] or