Trash To Treasure: From Toilets To Tiles : The Picture Show You wouldn't expect a landfill to be a place where you could turn something into a thing of beauty. But decorative tile maker, Paul Burns, sees opportunity in trash.
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Trash To Treasure: From Toilets To Tiles

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Trash To Treasure: From Toilets To Tiles

Trash To Treasure: From Toilets To Tiles

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Holly Kernan of member station KALW reports.


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

MICHAEL GROSS: 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.

PAUL BURNS: 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.

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?

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.

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.


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


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

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.

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.

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.


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.


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

KERNAN: For NPR News, I'm Holly Kernan.

MONTAGNE: And you can see the pretty tiles at the end of a truckload of toilets at

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