Technical Note #30 LCA: Environmental impacts of clay bricks in South Africa

LCA Management Summary for Brickmakers
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Management Summary and consolidation report of the LCA study

“Life Cycle Assessment of clay brick walling in South Africa”

Peter Drucker famously quoted, “what gets measured, gets managed”. By examining an activity we are forced to pay attention to it. By producing relevant and accurate measurements we can identify where improvements are possible, and then track progress against the original benchmark.

It was with this intention that the Clay Brick Association of Southern Africa embarked on a 3-year project to complete South Africa’s first industry-wide Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) for clay brick products. 

The study analyses the full lifecycle of clay brick:

  • Raw material extraction and clay brick production
  • Construction including transport to site
  • The operational life of the building, with the focus on heating and cooling energy and maintenance.
  • Building end-of-life, disposal, recycling and reuse.
  • Social Life Cycle Assessment within the context of sustainable development

The study was performed using specific production data from 86 out of the 102 clay brick production sites in South Africa which are members of the CBA. It is estimated that this covers about 95% of the South African national production.

The analysis was conducted in accordance with the ISO 14040 and 14044 standards with an external review in order to aim at the highest quality standards. The results were summarized by the University of Pretoria, in an extensive report tailored for environmental experts which describes the detailed methodology, data basis and all the assumptions used in the study.

The LCA was conducted by the University of Pretoria and co-funded by the National Research Foundation.  The successful conclusion of the in-depth research study is a significant achievement for the Energy Efficient Clay Brick Project (EECB), an initiative funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and implemented in South Africa by Swisscontact.

In order to facilitate the dissemination of the findings of the LCA amongst CBA members and construction industry stakeholders the most relevant results from the primary reports were extracted and consolidated into a detailed and user-friendly summary which is available on the CBA website.

Benefits for the construction industry

The full LCA will allow architects to accurately calculate the lifetime environmental impact of using clay brick in a building, compared against other construction materials.  Access to accurate data will make it easier to design “green” buildings that are naturally energy efficient.

Due to the long life expectancy of brick, the environmental impact of clay brick production is conceptually spread over 50 years. In environmental terms, electricity saved during the operations phase of a building far outweighs energy used during production.

This makes clay brick an attractive option for both environmentally-conscious architects and cost-conscious property owners.

Cutting CO2 emissions in brick-making

With respect to brick manufacturing, the main environmental impacts relate to the mining, production and burning of coal, which is the raw material used for combustion during firing. Because South Africa relies on coal burning technology for the generation of electricity, changing to electric kiln technologies would not reduce environmental impact.

Even though environmental impacts from production are not dominant in the overall lifecycle, the clay brick sector is committed optimizing production processes.

The LCA findings from the extraction and production stage provide a direct benefit for CBA members who now have access to accurate and locally-relevant statistics on energy efficiency, emissions, strengths and challenges across a broad range of brickmaking technologies.

The use of coal in brick-making accounts for most carbon emissions and pollutants like SO2 and nitrous oxides. Switching brick-makers to technologies proven to be more energy efficient will reduce South Africa’s total CO2 emissions and improve air quality.  The CBA plans to periodically update the LCA to assess the sector’s progress in addressing environmental hot spots. 

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