Some sustainability stories just feel more real than others.
Engineered stone has one of those stories. It’s a more environmentally friendly material than granite, marble and solid surface materials because it’s made largely from quartz and other minerals, which can be safely and efficiently mined just about everywhere in the world. It is manufactured without the use of toxic chemicals and is incredibly durable and easy to care for. Plus, it’s recyclable.
And thanks to people like Valentin Tijeras, engineered stone just keeps getting better—for designers, for fabricators and for the environment.
Tijeras is the global director of product and R&D for Cosentino Group, makers of Silestone, Dekton and Sensa by Cosentino. Headquartered in Almería, Spain, the company currently distributes to more than 110 countries and has eight factories (seven in Spain and one in Brazil) featuring the latest in technological and environmental processes.
Although Cosentino is often credited with being the inventor of “quartz” materials, Tijeras is quick to correct the record.
“This technology was actually invented in Israel, I’d say around 40 years ago, but they were only making it in a small tile format and only thinking about flooring. Paco [Cosentino, president and CEO] felt that if he could make a version of this material big enough for countertops, using marble remnants from the family’s quarry, he would own the market.”
That material, Silestone, was launched in 1990 and has since become a global success story.
Another company first, “Eco by Cosentino,” is notable for another reason: it was a valuable, if somewhat painful, lesson for the company.
Manufactured from 75% recycled materials that included mirror, glass, porcelain, earthenware and vitrified ash, with bio-resin and 94% recycled water, Eco was a great leap forward for sustainable engineered stone, but a commercial setback for Cosentino.
“This was our first version to be made with recycled content, back in 2009,” Tijeras said, “and it was truly a cradle-to-cradle design. We even designed the composition so it could be used again and again to achieve circularity.”
“It was recycled. It was beautiful. And it was written up everywhere when we launched it,” recalled Patty Dominguez, Cosentino’s VP of A&D sales. “People loved it, but they didn’t want to pay even a little bit more for it, so it wasn’t commercially successful for us.”
“That was over a decade ago,” she noted. “The mentality is different now, and we’ve gotten better at making sustainability part of our standard product offering.”
“We took the Eco lesson to heart,” Tijeras said. “You can invent the most sustainable material in the world, but if no one can afford it, or it’s not nice enough for anyone to want it, it’s not going to have any kind of positive impact. So, we began investing in a more eco-friendly manufacturing process that’s also more sustainable in terms of economics, performs as expected and looks very nice.
“We needed a solution for 80% of the customers, not 1%,” he added.
That solution is now a reality. The company’s “HybriQ” and “HybriQ+” manufacturing processes are raising the sustainability bar for the industry. As of February 2022, 100% of Silestone products are produced using this exclusive technology.
HybriQ starts with a blend of premium minerals, quartz and recycled materials, formed into slabs using 99% recycled water and 100% renewable energy. The HybriQ+ products add the use of a minimum of 20% recycled raw materials to the formula. This new process also boasts zero water discharge, keeping local water sources clean and healthy.
HybriQ addresses another issue that has traditionally vexed engineered stone: the dangers of crystalline silica dust. The tiny particles of mineral quartz created when cutting and machining engineered stone can get trapped in lungs and cause silicosis, an incurable, progressively disabling and sometimes fatal lung disease.
“We’ve been able to greatly reduce the presence of crystalline silica to a maximum of 10% or 50%, compared to 80% to 100% for others in the industry,” Tijeras explained. “This improves the working environment without altering the properties of the quartz agglomerate, helping mitigate the risks to fabricators while maintaining product performance for consumers.”
Tijeras is quick to add that none of these sustainability improvements have a negative impact on performance or design.
“They have the same mechanical and technical qualities that have made Silestone a trusted, go-to surfacing solution for industry professionals and consumers alike. It just has a more sustainable focus. In fact,” he continued, “HybriQ opens the door to new design possibilities as the new formulation features improved depth and translucency. And Cosentino is absorbing these investments, so the cost to designers and consumers hasn’t changed.”
Two new 2021 launches, Ethereal and Sunlit Days, are both made with Silestone’s new HybriQ technology:
- Ethereal is marble-inspired and includes four colorways, offering an artistic interpretation of the “fleeting, heavenly patterns cast in the sky with fine lines in deep hues against a white canvas that captures the interplay of color and light seen from dawn to nightfall,” according to a company description.
- Sunlit Days is Silestone’s first-ever carbon neutral collection. With a robust color offering inspired by nature in the Mediterranean, the collection includes five hues that offer a wide range of applications with the potential to serve not only as countertops but also as backsplashes or wall cladding in high-moisture or high-traffic areas.
“In addition to creating Sunlit Days with HybriQ+, we’ve committed to offset all carbon dioxide emissions for the entire lifecycle of this collection through a variety of voluntary offsetting projects with the Voluntary Carbon Market,” Tijeras noted. “This initiative is also complemented by a partnership program for the preservation of the seabed.”
Cosentino’s ultra-compact porcelain-based material, Dekton, achieved carbon neutrality for its entire lifecycle in 2020.
Tijeras said Cosentino’s successes in sustainability and circularity is built on transparency, and a near fanatical focus on measuring progress.
“We’re like a restaurant with an open kitchen. Everyone can see our EPD and HPD certifications, where we source our materials and how much energy and water we use. We use this data to set incremental, achievable goals year after year. This is how we got to HybriQ,” he explained.
Making the Most of Precious Resources
For Cosentino, the concept of “circularity” goes beyond material design.
“We like to talk about circularity as a mix of environment and also social and economic factors. It doesn’t make any sense if you make something that’s very environmentally friendly, but then allow your company to have negative impacts on society,” Tijeras explained.
“A big part of our incentive to run our company sustainably is that we are all part of the small, rural community where we operate. Our employees are our neighbors and friends, we know each other’s families, we see each other at restaurants. We aren’t going to try and save money by moving jobs to China or cut corners on keeping our environment clean and healthy,” he said.
“It’s no secret that making engineered stone takes a lot of water,” Tijeras admitted. “In our part of Spain, water is especially precious, so we’ve invested in very cutting-edge technology to recycle the water we use, and we have a zero effluent policy—nothing goes into the river or the soil.”
While water may be precious in Almería, sunlight is plentiful. Cosentino has invested in Spain’s largest solar power plant for self-consumption, soon capable of generating 20 megawatts of electricity—fully one-third of the power needed for manufacturing at the site. The remainder is sourced from renewable sources.
“It’s still far too easy for companies to compromise on sustainability when time and cost variables come into play,” Dominguez said. “The solution is, don’t make those compromises. Once you take that approach the cycle starts to build on itself, and that’s when you start making real progress.”