Copyright ©2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

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.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.