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Mon November 29, 2010
The Picture Show

Trash To Treasure: From Toilets To Tiles

Originally published on Wed May 23, 2012 10:43 am

You wouldn't expect a landfill to be a place where you could turn something (with a high yuck factor) into a thing of beauty. But decorative tile maker Paul Burns saw an opportunity. He's taking discarded porcelain toilets and using them to make tile.

This isn't the first time Burns realized he could use waste materials in his clay mixture. He's the owner of FireClay Tile in Northern California and a self-described scavenger. Burns' tile factory is next door to one of the oldest granite rock quarries in California. And when you quarry rock, you create a lot of dust, which isn't easy to dispose. The company searched for decades to find uses for its granite dust.

"So they came over one day to see if we could make a product out of some of their dust," Burns says. He had already been experimenting with waste materials without success. He thought, why not? It worked, although it took him almost two years to figure out how much of the dust he could add into his clay and still maintain consistency.

He created a new tile line called "Debris Series." And then he added other post-consumer waste products like recycled glass. He also found he could use the sludge from sandblasting water pipes, called spent abrasives. All of this went into his new clay brew.

The latest innovation: toilets -- porcelain toilets -- that have been thrown away (or used as road base). Surprisingly, it wasn't easy to track down the toilets at first. But Burns hit the jackpot when he heard from Michael Gross, the aptly named marketing manager of the Zanker Road Landfill near San Jose, Calif.

Gross realized the significance of Burns' endeavor -- his major goal being to find more local markets for his garbage. "Right now all our plastic containers [and] metals are going to Asian markets, which is ridiculous," Gross says. It took his team about a year to pluck all the toilets for Burns (along with some sinks and tubs), one by one, out of construction waste piles. In November, they had enough collected -- about a dozen metals containers filled with 150 tons of porcelain potties.

Within a few hours, the landfill crushed them all into a sandy consistency for Burns. He's paying $50 a ton for this porcelain -- about the same as new clay. So why does he do it? Mostly, he likes the challenge: "I always like using things for best use. When I see things around me that are thrown away, I look at them and try to find a use for them." But sometimes, Burns says, "working with waste is a big waste of time."

Burns, though, knows how to be efficient -- and knows when to say no. The Budweiser brewery made him an offer, for example. "They wanted to know if I could get rid of their yeast cakes that are left over from brewing beer. They sent me a 5 gallon bucket. I opened it and the smell literally knocked me down. I ended up with my head on the pavement, and I realized there's no way we can handle this in the factory."

Still, one man's trash is another man's treasure. Burns is always on the lookout for the next pile of promising waste.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Here in California, a ceramics artist has found a use for old porcelain toilets. They usually wind up in landfills, taking up space, so this ceramicist has figured out a way to turn them into decorative tiles, tiles that now grace kitchens and concert halls across the country.

Holly Kernan of member station KALW reports.

(Soundbite of machinery)

HOLLY KERNAN: At the Zanker Road Landfill near San Jose, about a dozen giant metal containers are lined up in a long row.

Mr. MICHAEL GROSS (Marketing Manager, Zanker Road Landfill): Filled with toilets. And these toilets were pulled from different loads coming in. Now, somebody was doing a remodel, paneling, tile...

KERNAN: That's the landfill's marketing manager, Michael Gross. And yes, he gets a lot of jokes about his name, especially as his crew plucked all of these toilets one by one out of construction waste. It took about a year to collect this many. And it took a lot longer for artist Paul Burns to convince any landfills to work with him.

Mr. PAUL BURNS (Artist; Owner, FireClay Tile): Basically, people would hang up on me or they'd never call my back.

KERNAN: Zanker Road Landfill finally did, because manager Michael Gross is always looking for local markets for his garbage.

Mr. GROSS: All our plastic containers, our metals are all going into Asian markets. I mean, we need to be able to find manufacturing businesses here. So when Paul called, it's like, great. This would be a nice niche for our toilets.

KERNAN: There aren't too many niche markets for toilets, are there?

Mr. GROSS: No. I think this is my first.

KERNAN: And they've collected 150 tons of porcelain potties that will become the newest ingredient in Burns' handmade, hand-painted tiles. He owns FireClay Tile and is a self-described scavenger. Over a decade ago, he surprised other tile artists by using waste to make ceramics.

Mr. BURNS: Well, they just thought I was crazy. He must have more time than he knows what to do with, or he must not have a TV.

KERNAN: Burns persevered, and now his Debris tile line - made mostly from post-consumer waste - is the best-selling product in his $2 million-a-year business. But this is the first time he's gone directly to a landfill.

(Soundbite of toilets being dumped)

KERNAN: Those old commodes are now being churned up at the landfill.

(Soundbite of grinding)

KERNAN: They're pulverized in a giant crushing machine, and then sent down on conveyers, which spout the porcelain dust like a waterfall.

Mr. BURNS: It's just beautiful. It's like beach sand when you run your hand through it.

KERNAN: Burns is paying $50 a ton for this porcelain about the same as new clay. So why does he do it? Mostly, he enjoys the challenge.

Mr. BURNS: Well, I've always just liked using things for best use. And so when I see things around me that are just being thrown away, I look at them and try to find a use for them.

KERNAN: Particularly if the garbage is nearby. Burns' tile factory is less than an hour's drive from the Zanker Road Landfill, and his next door neighbor is a granite rock quarry.

Mr. BURNS: They tried for decades to find uses for their granite dust that they generate. So they came over one day to see if we could make a product out of some of their dust.

KERNAN: It took Burns almost two years to figure how to add that granite dust into his clay mixture. Then he began experimenting with other ingredients: recycled glass, sludge from water pipes, and now ground up porcelain that used to be toilets.

(Soundbite of machinery)

KERNAN: In the end, all mushed up, it looks like ordinary clay. It comes out of a machine that resembles a giant pasta maker, where it's hand-stamped to make tiles.

(Soundbite of machinery)

Mr. BURNS: I wanted to make a beautiful product, and if it looked recycled, it would not be successful.

KERNAN: But Paul Burns doesn't sit back and relax now. He's on the lookout for the next pile of waste.

For NPR News, I'm Holly Kernan.

MONTAGNE: And you can see the pretty tiles at the end of a truckload of toilets at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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