From toilets to kitchen tiles

Clay Technology magazine
10 Feb 2011
The ‘Debris’ series used in United Supermarkets, Texas. Image courtesy of Fireclay Tile

A Californian company is salvaging waste sanitaryware and turning it into premium ceramics. It believes it is the first USA-based company to do so, exploiting a proprietory recycling process.

Fireclay Tile, based in San Jose, has recently started incorporating post-consumer waste sanitary products into its Debris series tiles, which are made from more than 60% recycled materials.

The process involves grinding waste in a small Komplet crusher with a 10 horsepower motor. The porcelain is then screened to assess particle quality where larger pieces may be returned for re-grinding. ‘We have to adjust our formula for particle size and plasticity since we are making an extruded product,’ says Paul Burns, Founder and Chief Ceramicist of Fireclay Tile. ‘By crushing and screening ourselves, it allows us the flexibility to vary particle sizes when necessary. We have different sized crusher plates so we can vary the size of our crushed materials.’ This means the company is able to use a variety of waste clay, from old tiles to cracked toilets.

Waste porcelain is cheap and plentiful, says Burns. ‘The trick with collecting local waste is that there needs to be enough and a consistent supply to formulate products based on the material.’ Due to the abundance of porcelain, Fireclay Tile is able to collect all of its materials from Northern California, with 90% of the materials used in the Debris series sourced from within 200 miles.

As well as old sanitarywares, it takes in a number of additional materials, such as waste glass and spent abrasives (used to clean industrial pipes transporting water from the Yosemite valley to San Francisco). ‘We use glass [in the ceramic blend] because it has the benefit of lowering our melting point and saving about 30% of the firing energy we would use to make a high fired ceramic tile,’ explains Burns.

One convenient source of material even came from a granite quarry that presented the firm with a supply of waste granite dust to process.

Burns says that if toilets do not end up as landfill, they are often ground into base rock for use in road construction, ‘but [that means] downcycling [instead of] upcycling the waste into beautiful handmade tiles.’

The recycling of bathroom porcelain is a relatively new venture for Fireclay Tile, but Burns says his company has been using recycled content for 20 years now, and that many other USA manufacturers seem reluctant to go through the trial-and-error process it entails. ‘We had a lot of problems with reliability of materials and often had to stop after spending a lot of time adding in a new material to our mix. When you are manufacturing, consistency is always desired and the fear of introducing a new mix or changing a good performing one often keeps companies from doing the work we do.’

Ceramics expert Barry Lye made the point that although using waste sanitarywares in this way may be an innovation in the USA, ‘there is an English tile company who has been using this technology successfully for many years, using all types of ceramic ware to incorporate into an attractive product’. Lye added, however that ‘It is very good to see that such a difficult material to recycle is being used to manufacture another ceramic product. In the past sanitaryware was simply thrown away… unfortunately, it does not degrade. It is interesting to note that recycled glass is also being incorporated into the body recipe to reduce the firing temperature and the carbon footprint – a very environmentally interesting and thought provoking project for the whole industry to think about’.

Burns added that he eventually intends to set up a system that will allow them to accept waste tiles themselves.  

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