One of the biggest impacts that ceramics has on the environment of the planet is from mining operations. Ceramic materials are obtained mostly from surface mining which is the most detrimental type of extraction because it causes the largest change to the land. Mining strips nonrenewable resources from the earth resulting in some negative effects which can include;
- Biodiversity loss
- Soil erosion
- Contamination of surface water
- Formation of sinkholes
Surface mining can destroy the ecological balance of an area, sometimes wiping out entire species. Despite efforts, many times an area can not be restored to its former state after extraction has commenced. The materials displaced during the process are called spoil piles. These have perhaps the most immediate effect on the surrounding areas. Minerals not previously available to erosion processes can travel into local water supplies contaminating it chemically and suffocating local flora and fauna which live in the water. A 2019 study from the Associated Press found that 50 million gallons of contaminated water pour daily from mine sites in the U.S.
An Alternative to using clay from industrial mining sites is to locally harvest clay. However, this still alters the landscape, albeit on a much smaller scale, and can affect the ecology and biodiversity of the area. Through the removal of topsoil, sediment is exposed. Piling the soil over untitled land will inevitably disturb the soil nutrient cycle. Heavy rainfall can then wash the sediment into nearby bodies of water which can smother organisms living in the water and make it unsuitable for drinking for larger fauna.
Another aspect of the environmental impact of mining is processing and transportation. Clay, feldspar, fillers, and fluxes come from all over the world. With these transports come whole sets of pollutants from each.
While most materials that we use go through the extensive processing of mining, frits are a whole other can of worms. Ceramicists use frits for their reliability, melting properties, and convenience. These highly precise materials are manufactured by an intense melting and cooling process which homogenizes the mix of chemicals. The most commonly used frit company for studio ceramicists is Ferro, which is a U.S. based company with 72 locations worldwide.
“In our case, the main environmental aspect associated with the production of ceramic frits is that it is an energy-intensive, high-temperature process. This entails emissions of combustion products and the oxidation of atmospheric nitrogen due to the high temperature.” – (Qualicer.org -World Congress on Ceramic Tile Quality). Oxidation of nitrogen creates nitrous oxide (also known as laughing gas) which is 300 times stronger than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. It has a lifespan of 110 years and depletes the ozone