In early 2021, during my post-baccalaureate year at the University of Montana, I began researching the mining, refining, and distributing practices of companies that supply dry materials to the ceramics industry. The most shocking information was the incredible distance these materials travel and how difficult it is to find the details of the environmental impact.
The University of Montana's ceramics department buys raw materials from the Archie Bray Foundation in Helena, Montana. From there, it travels 114 miles by truck to UM in Missoula. The Bray Clay Business receives their materials from the Laguna Clay Company in the City of Industry, California, just outside Los Angeles, 1,162 miles from the Bray. This totals 1,276 miles, tacked onto the movement that takes place in the mining and refining process.
The United States has a storied history of open-pit or surface mining, and the majority of active domestic clay mines still employ this practice. It is important to note that “this type of mining is particularly damaging to the environment because strategic minerals are often only available in small concentrations, which increases the amount of ore needed to be mined.” It poses a health risk to miners through the inhalation of mined materials in addition to the resulting devastation to the environment. Most of these quarries are located near water sources and occupy miles of natural land.
I am not an expert, just a concerned ceramicist interested in reducing our collective carbon footprint. My knowledge of mining and refining processes is limited to the information these companies and the EPA can provide. Still, my hope is that by bringing attention to the impact of obtaining our materials, we can start to visualize our industry's effect on the planet.
C & C Ball
C & C Ball is a bit unique in that it is explicitly mined for the ceramics industry. It is largely used in commercially produced dinnerware, tile, and sanitaryware, with the smallest portion of their exports going to the "artware" industry. The C & C Ball that the University of Montana uses comes from H.C. Spinks Clay Company's mine in Gleason, Tennessee. Their dry processing plant is within driving distance, just twenty miles from the mine in Paris, Tennessee.
Before this material reaches Missoula, it travels from Gleason to Paris, Tennessee, to California for Laguna Clay Company, then to the Archie Bray Foundation in Helena before finally arriving in Missoula at the University of Montana. This material alone travels 3,218 miles. Based on the Environmental Defense Fund's Green Freight Handbook, this route, loaded with maximum weight on a fifty-three-foot truck and trailer, produces 5.47 metric tons of CO2. It is important to note that this calculation is solely based on the miles traveled and not the weight of the cargo, so this is an average estimate for a truck traveling in the United States. To fully understand this environmental impact, we must consider that emissions from distribution are combined with the environmental degradation from mining, airborne particulate matter, fossil fuel use in heavy machinery, and emissions from the drying process.
Minspar is a more typical raw material in terms of its intended use and process of exportation. It is mined commercially for architectural glass, abrasives, automotive plastics, engineered stone, adhesives, and sealants. Its most minor consumer is the ceramics industry, commonly used in commercial ceramics, with a tiny portion distributed for our purposes.
The Minspar we receive is mined by the Quartz Corporation, which operates mines worldwide. Their Minspar mine is located in Spruce Pine, North Carolina. There is no concern of over mining this site by the company, where they claim the richest deposit of quartz in the world is hidden underground. However, its position is concerning; Spruce Pine is located in the Appalachian Mountains on the North Toe River, a popular recreation spot in North Carolina. In 2018, this mine leaked hundreds of gallons of hydrofluoric acid into the North Toe River, resulting in numerous dead trout washing up on the banks, demonstrating the worrying effects of this mine location. An ABC 13 News article from the incident details six other violations the Quartz Corporation has committed since 1981. The company hosts annual volunteer river clean-up events for the public.
The most concerning element of the Quartz Corporation's operations is that their refinery does not seem to be near the mine or even in the same country. The only refining location listed is in Drag, Norway, near another large body of water. From the Quartz Corporation's website, "The combination of Spruce Pine's outstanding natural resources and the processing expertise in Drag allowed the creation of a key supplier." The company does not detail the travel between the plants, but because of both locations' proximity to ports and that it is more cost-effective for a company to ship by cargo boat than a plane, we will assume that this Minspar travels 320 miles to the closest port in North Carolina, the Port of Wilmington, then 4,660 nautical miles to Drag before it has even begun the refining process.
With the information provided to us, we find that this material travels 5,363 miles from Spruce Pine, North Carolina to Drag, Norway before it is refined, then 9,787 nautical miles to Los Angeles for Laguna. If we assume that the materials now travel straight to California by boat, then by truck to Helena, then Missoula, we see that there are 18,253.2 miles traveled in total. Because this material travels by ship and truck, we assume that twenty tons of material are shipped. This is near the maximum weight that a truck can legally transport on the Interstate system. A forty-foot container is near the length of a full-size trailer, so we will also assume that this is what is used to ship the material by boat. With these metrics, and the formula provided in the EDF's Green Freight Handbook, the total potential carbon emissions from this material are approximately 6.64 metric tons of CO2. To put this into context, “to have the best chance of avoiding a 2℃ rise in global temperatures, the average global carbon footprint per year needs to drop to under two tons by 2050.” Suppose we consider the documented leak of hazardous materials into waterways, emissions from machinery and transportation, dryers, grinders, and the repercussions of large boats on the ocean. In those cases, we can begin to see the extremes that are hidden from ceramicists regarding our environmental impact.
This information can be incredibly overwhelming. Though we are minuscule consumers of these products in the grand scheme of these companies' exports, it is essential to remember that we are still contributors. We must each aim to understand our own carbon footprint and understand the significance of our purchases.
Contact the companies that supply your material. Ask about their product sourcing. Open-pit mining is unsustainable. Often, mining companies provide a sustainability statement outlining how they will change to decrease their environmental impact by some future date. Let them know that change needs to begin now.
Use local clay suppliers and ask them questions. Does your supplier source directly from mining companies or another distributor? If they are sourced directly from mining companies, how many options are there for a specific material? Are there more sustainable possibilities? How is the product transported? Is there an option for a greener way of travel?
Take inventory of ways to make your own practices more sustainable. Pay attention to scarce materials and avoid them. Reduce your firing temperature to conserve energy. Reclaim clay, find ways to recycle your glaze waste, and use materials sparingly. If you ship large-scale or significant quantities of work or have materials delivered, investigate freight companies with sustainability policies and who are making efforts to be environmentally conscious.
The important thing is that this conversation is happening and will continue. We can make our voices heard as consumers, armed with information these companies have tried to keep hidden.
 “The Future of Strategic Natural Resources.” Environmental risks of mining. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Accessed January 21, 2022. https://web.mit.edu/12.000/www/m2016/finalwebsite/problems/mining.html
 “11.27 Feldspar Processing – US EPA.” Emission Factors 11.27 Feldspar Processing. Environmental Protection Agency, January 1995. https://www3.epa.gov/ttnchie1/ap42/ch11/final/c11s27.pdf
 Read more here about the worrying effects of this mine location.
3.1 “SELC Hold Quartz Mine Accountable for Pollution to Trout Stream.” Southern Environmental Law Center. October 2, 2015. https://www.southernenvironment.org/news/selc-holds-quartz-mine-accountable-for-pollution-to-trout-stream/
3.2 Gardner, Tim. “Local Mining Companies Considered for Discharge Permit Renewals.” High Country Press, May 15, 2019. https://www.hcpress.com/front-page/local-mining-companies-considered-for-discharge-permit-renewals.html
 King, Kimberly. “Dozens of Fish in North Toe River Killed After Quarry Leak, State Officials Say.” Source: ABC 13 News, July 17, 2018. https://wlos.com/news/local/dozens-of-fish-in-north-toe-river-killed-after-quarry-leak-state-officials-say
 “Emission Factor Documentation for AP-42 Section 11.25, Clay Processing, Final Report.” Environmental Protection Agency, August 10, 1994. https://www3.epa.gov/ttnchie1/ap42/ch11/bgdocs/b11s25.pdf
 “History: Drag, Norway.” Feldspar, Part of the Quartz Corp. Accessed January 21, 2022. https://www.feldspar.com/history/
 “Sea route and distance.” accesses January 21, 2022. http://ports.com/sea-route/ and https://ncports.com/port-facilities/port-of-wilmington/
 “Compilation of existing Stat Truck Size and Weight Limit Laws.” U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration, May 2015. https://ops.fhwa.dot.gov/freight/policy/rpt_congress/truck_sw_laws/index.htm
 The Green Freight Handbook. Supply Chain Solutions Center. Environmental Defense Fund (EDF + Business), February 9, 2019. https://supplychain.edf.org/resources/the-green-freight-handbook/
 “How to Help, Calculate Your Carbon Footprint.” The Nature Conservancy. Accessed January 21, 2021. https://www.nature.org/en-us/get-involved/how-to-help/carbon-footprint-calculator/