Stylish Recycled Tiles Help Solve America's Toilet Problem

As porcelain piles up in landfills, a California-based company is turning toilets and other waste into household treasure

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Few people look at a discolored, discarded toilet and think, "Oh, the creative possibilities!" Then again, few people are Paul Burns, the chief ceramicist and president of San Jose, California-based Fireclay Tile. Burns has long incorporated pre-consumer and post-consumer waste into his sleek, Heath Ceramics-esque tiles, but only within the last year and a half has he decided to play with pulverizing old toilets and use them to decorate high-end grocery stores and homes.

"We're really focused on scavenging the local waste stream and upcycling," says Eric Edelson, a Fireclay co-owner and business manager.

Fireclay first developed its "Debris Series" of tiles in the late 1990s. Tiles in that collection consist of up to 70 percent recycled content, though the amount has varied over the years. Besides the recycled porcelain from old toilets from San Francisco and San Jose, the company's tiles use recycled glass from Strategic Materials, an abrasives company in San Leandro; recycled granite dust from Watsonville-based pavement company Granite Rock; and reclaimed abrasives once used to clean the Hetch Hetchy water pipes that run between Yosemite Valley and San Francisco. The remainder of the raw materials for the tiles comes from the clay soil of the San Francisco Bay Area.

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In one of the many ironic twists from within the worlds of conservation and green design, Edelson says one reason so many toilets are reaching landfills these days is the push for consumers to switch to water-efficient models. All of the older water-guzzlers have to go somewhere, and the Zanker Road landfill in San Jose is just one of many where they're piling up. Edelson says Fireclay is happy to take on the challenge of reclaiming and finding new uses for the old toilets. "We take other people's waste, which we think is a harder waste stream to use," he says, explaining why the company often seeks out post-consumer rather than pre-consumer waste.

As a side benefit, it turns out the LEED-certified tiles are actually quite lovely. Edelson says customers include the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Google, which has used the tiles in their rec rooms and restrooms in both Northern and Southern California, as well as Whole Foods, which has the tiles in its seafood and deli sections in 60 stores across the country. The tiles tend to be confined to small areas within larger buildings. "We are a very small part of their design because we're just too expensive," Edelson admits.

Quite a few other companies also incorporate waste into their tiles. These include Crossville, Terra Green Ceramics, Modwalls, Oceanside Glasstile, and Clayhaus. But Fireclay, which says its Debris Series contains more post- and pre-consumer waste than any other tile on the market, works on a different production scale than many of its competitors and in some cases caters to a more design-oriented clientele.

Once Fireclay masters its toilet tile design, the company will start looking to other waste streams. One product currently under development makes use of more recycled glass, specifically what's left over from wine bottlers. After that will come a plan to start using glass from computer screens, although "we're not there yet," Edelson says. "It's a lot of trial and failure." He points out that the hardest part of making so-called "green" products is less about the mechanics of reusing and more about convincing companies to give Fireclay an ongoing supply of waste.

Of course, once Fireclay does convince people to give them access to raw materials, it's often hard to get the donations to stop. Edelson says he's received inquiries from all over the country from people looking to dispose of their old toilets. And it's not entirely uncommon for him to show up for work to find an abandoned, forlorn-looking toilet or two waiting for him outside Fireclay's gates.

Images: Courtesy of Fireclay Tile

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Leah Messinger is a reporter whose work has appeared in Afar, The New York Times Magazine, Newsday, The Oakland Tribune, and The San Francisco Chronicle Magazine, among other publications. More

Leah Messinger is a reporter whose work has appeared in Afar, The East Bay Express, The Hollywood Reporter, The New York Times Magazine, Newsday, The Oakland Tribune, Red Herring, and The San Francisco Chronicle Magazine, among other publications. For many years she was the editorial director of the California Institute for Biodiversity, and she holds a master’s degree in journalism and bachelor’s degrees in both conservation and resource studies and political science from the University of California, Berkeley.

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