Smarter Business: Smart Design

A truck of toilet porcelain scraps.

Photo: Fireclay Tiles

Every day Americans throw out an average of 4.3 pounds of waste per person, according to 2009 statistics from the Environmental Protection Agency. Over 38 million tons of durable goods, including all kinds of furniture and large household appliances, were disgarded in landfills in 2009. Toxic runoff from landfills can threaten water supplies and generate hazardous air emissions, often poisoning local wildlife and communities.

Fireclay Tile founder Paul Burns saw a business opportunity in all that trash: more specifically, in post-consumer recycled porcelain. Thousands of pounds of porcelain toilets, bathtubs and vanity sinks, along with other durable goods, are thrown away every year, but when properly processed into porcelain dust, those discarded toilets can provide a cost-effective raw material for making new products.

Fireclay Tile, located in San Jose, California, prides itself on bringing recycled materials and sustainable practices to the old-fashioned business of making kiln-fired tiles. Fireclay works with other local businesses to incorporate waste into new products, helping to avoid hundreds of tons of landfill waste each year.

Fireclay also sources 99.5 percent of its raw materials from within 20 miles of its facility, helping to minimize the economic and environmental costs of long-distance transportation. While Fireclay’s tiles do use some raw clay, the company’s commitment to recycling minimizes the amount of raw clay it needs to purchase and cuts back on the land disruption, erosion and pollution associated with clay mining.

A processer of porcelain scraps.

Photo: Fireclay Tiles

The Process

In order to salvage, sort and store discarded porcelain, Fireclay Tile partnered with San Francisco waste-management organization Recology and local recycling facility Zanker Road Resource Management LTD. The Zanker Road facility pulverizes the salvaged toilets into dust, to make a material that, at $50 per ton, costs about the same as new clay.

Fireclay Tile originally tried incorporating the dust into its white-bodied ceramic tile line, Vitrail, but discovered that the dark porcelain dust was a better fit for the Debris Series. At 60 percent recycled content, the Debris series already uses discarded granite dust, waste glass and spent abrasives among its raw materials. With the addition of porcelain dust, the product’s recycled content would reach 70 percent.

Crushing porcelain toilets in to dust.

Photo: Fireclay Tiles

After successful early tests, Fireclay invested in a staging area at their facility and experimented with both sourcing and processing in order to scale up their use of recycled porcelain.

The Outcome

Fireclay Tile’s Debris series tiles are not only the company’s bestselling product— they’re cheaper to manufacture than the company’s Vitail ceramic tile line, which contains no recycled content.

Recology and Zanker Road salvaged over 150 tons of porcelain waste for Fireclay Tile in 2010. Both organizations have committed to diverting porcelain waste in the future, but as 100 tons will last Fireclay only eight months, the company hopes to begin similar partnerships with other California waste municipalities as well. As Fireclay Tile moves forward with reclaiming and recycling porcelain, the company may debut a new tile line based entirely on reclaimed porcelain.  

fireclay debris tiles

Photo: Debris Series Recycled Tile Cosmos Kitchen Backsplash in Oatmeal by Terrene LLC

“Our story at Fireclay is one of trial and error in order to figure out the best means for both recycling as well as creating a beautiful product that meets the demands of the market.” – Eric Edelson, Fireclay Tile Vice President

Shortly after launching the porcelain salvage effort, Fireclay Tile launched the Crush series of 100 percent recycled glass tiles. Like the Debris series, the Crush series uses locally sourced materials, thereby diverting waste from nearby businesses and waste management facilities and also minimizing the cost of transportation.

Fireclay Tile products are sold nationwide in tile and eco-friendly showrooms, and customers include environmentally conscious businesses like Whole Foods markets. All Fireclay Tile products are LEED compliant and help purchasers achieve LEED construction credits. At its manufacturing facility, Fireclay Tile recycles its kiln heat, water and manufacturing waste, and has long committed to using glazes that do not include lead.

fireclay debris tiles

Photo: Debris Series Recycled Tile Cuerda Seca Steps at Bay Meadows, CA Public Parking Garage by Terrene LLC


last revised 6/16/2011

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