Innovative recyclables replace dangerous silica benchtops

As Australia realises the dangers of working with engineered stone to manufacture benchtops and tiles, one company is bucking the trend to make high-end products largely from recyclables.

At a facility alongside the Shoalhaven City Council’s waste service, 200km south of Sydney, Kandui Technologies uses mostly glass and textiles – old clothes and linen – that would not normally be recycled, to make green ceramics.

The end products are tiles that are marketed as high-end, environmentally safe, engineered bio-composites suitable for construction, furniture, and other architectural and decorative uses.

“To an end client, we look the same, we feel the same and we perform similarly,” Kandui Chief Operating Officer Ryan Fritsch told Cosmos. “But from a process perspective, we’re actually something completely different.”

Kandui Technologies is one of the first “MICROfactories” that has come out of the research at the Centre for Sustainable Materials Research and Technology (SMaRT) at the University of New South Wales,  founded by Australian Research Council (ARC) Laureate Professor Veena Sahajwalla.

Sahajwalla, the 2022 NSW Australian of the Year, is also behind Green Steel.

Veena sahajwalla
Veena Sahajwalla. Credit: UNSW

Kandui Technologies founder Andrew Douglas worked with Sahajwalla to turn the fledgling patented process into a commercially viable business, becoming the first licensee and the exclusive manufacturer of Green Ceramics.

While Kandui remains coy about the specifics of the patented manufacturing process, Fritsch says the method involves pulverising glass and textiles. The eye can distinguish the colour of pieces that are about 1mm or larger, and these pieces can be used to colour the product. The textiles acting as a bonding agent.

Kandui Technologies encourages clients to incorporate their own local materials into an end product, either from nearby waste collection agencies, or from a company’s own waste. Visibly bigger pieces can be incorporated as flecks throughout the tiles as a feature.

“If we have, let’s say, a fashion client, we can take some of their waste textiles and turn around and actually make tile out of it for their showrooms,” Fritsch says. “They can say, oh by the way, that was last fall’s edition of this product and you can physically see it right there, which is quite cool.”

The product, Fritsch says, is at the higher end of the price range but is also more durable than traditional ceramics.

Kandui plans to start add production of benchtops next year, and has joined the market at a time when Australia has become fully aware of the dangers of working with engineered stone containing respirable crystalline silica (RCS).

Safe Work Australia last month released a regulation impact statement recommending a prohibition on the use of all engineered stone, irrespective of crystalline silica content, to protect the health and safety of workers, stating engineered stone workers exposed to RCS were “significantly over-represented in silicosis cases”.

Learn more about green ceramics recyclables

Silicosis is an incurable lung disease caused by breathing in silica.

“Crystalline silica is going to get talked about more and more over the next 12 months,” Fritsch says. “Most players are going to talk about how they only have 20% or they only have 10%.

“The fact that we don’t include it in our recipes at all is one of the biggest fundamental differences between us and everything else on the market.

“Not only are we just fundamentally good for the environment, we’re also doing something that is safer for the people that are handling these products as well.”

Fritsch says the combination of making a dent in landfill and producing a safer product has led to a surge in interest in green ceramics from around the country, with approaches from councils and commercial operators.

“It’s very easy not to think that the surface industry is very big,” he says. “But it’s enormous.

“It’s worth billions of dollars a year, just in Australia, and tens and tens of billions of dollars globally.

“So because we’re a fundamentally good product, because of our recycled materials and we’re an inherently safer product from an installation perspective, we see ourselves being able to take a sizeable piece of the market.

“That requires a very aggressive expansion in our own manufacturing output.”

Shoalhaven City Council received grant funding of $500,000 from the Environment Trust to enter a partnership with SMaRT in 2021 to establish a green ceramics MICROfactorie at West Nowra. This includes both green ceramics and the conversion of cleaned waste plastics into pellets or 3D printing filament.

The Greenlight Project is a year-long look at how regional Australia is preparing for and adapting to climate change.

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