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Is Marble Sustainable? It’s Complicated

Digging deeper into the material's sustainability conundrum

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By AD Clever | May 20, 2021 | Design

Ask 100 designers for their opinion on marble, and they will almost all agree that it’s a great material to jazz up an interior. It can add a dose of drama to a simple kitchen or transform an apartment bathroom into one straight out of an Italian palazzo. But when it comes to marble’s environmental footprint, opinions are divided.

Some will say that marble is the very definition of a sustainable building material. It comes, after all, straight from the earth and can be extracted from quarries all around the globe. “It’s the original green material,” says Boston-based designer Liz Caan, who uses marble as often as her clients will let her. “It doesn’t require other resources to create, and there is an abundant supply.”

Marble is also exceptionally durable, as demonstrated by the centuries-old Taj Mahal and Michelangelo’s 500-year-old David statue, which both still look like they were built only years ago. This longevity makes it easy to repair or recycle: Large slabs can be reworked into smaller pieces such as backsplashes and vanity tops, and when those retire, they can be cut into home accessories (serving trays, bookends). At the very end of its life, marble can be ground up and used in concrete. “Marble ages better than a good wine,” Liz says. “It can be re-sanded, resealed, and repaired. If cared for properly, its lifespan is infinite.”

But its eco-appeal comes with a giant asterisk, one made of irregular-shaped offcuts and dust from an extraction and production process that turns between 30% and 70% of the raw material into waste and guzzles up copious amounts of energy and water—with environmental impact as a dire consequence. And that isn’t the only polluting part: A large chunk of the marble used in interior design is excavated in countries on the other side of the globe—think Italy and India—which requires a fuel-heavy shipping operation before it can be used in American homes.

Thus, marble’s sustainability conundrum can't be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” “It depends very much on the project particulars,” says Callie Tedder-Hares, founding partner and creative director at London-based design studio Volume. “A critical part of designing responsibly is considering the longevity of the material in relation to the lifecycle and locality of the project. If you’re designing something you know will be updated in five years, then I would suggest that this isn’t the best place to use marble. But if you’re using marble as a core material, such as the floor or walls of a building, then I would argue that it is, potentially, sustainable.”

Whichever side of the fence you’re on, there are ways to incorporate marble designs in your interior that are less taxing on the environment. Callie suggests looking into alternative materials with a marble-like appearance, such as Smile Plastics’ recycled—and recyclable—boards from waste plastic, or the terrazzo-like surfaces from recycled marble dust and offcuts by Altrock. There are many other man-made alternatives, such as quartz and cultured marble, but Callie stresses the importance of paying close attention to the manufacturing processes. “Unfortunately, greenwashing is prevalent these days, so it’s vital to ask the right questions and research the production and supply chain—it’s not always a straightforward decision.”

If you’re set on using the real deal, consider sourcing locally. Quarries in Vermont produce slabs of Danby marble that look similar to Carrara but don’t have to cross the ocean. Better yet, visit a local stone recycler—many specialize in reclaimed slabs that can be cut and repolished into good-as-new countertops. However, marble is only as long-lasting as its owners choose it to be. Avoid trendy designs and opt for a marble with staying power, and regularly maintain it with an eco-friendly sealant to prevent staining and etching (acidic spills such as lemon juice and tomato sauce leave pesky marks).

Product designers are leading the way in finding ways to reduce reliance on virgin marble. Tom Dixon launched a range of candle holders and bookends made from powdered marble residue mixed with pigment and resin to re-create the material’s swirly look (though marble furnishing from quarries in India and China are also part of the designer’s assortment). London-based designer duo Archive for Space uses all sorts of reclaimed marble for their boxy side tables, and Italian designer Samuele Brianza has created a modular console collection from small pieces of marble salvaged from waste deposits.

“This is the real fun,” Samuele says. “Turning an abandoned piece of beautiful stone into a gorgeous new object.”

Feature Image: Pexels

This originally appeared on AD CLEVER | Chris Schalkx

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