Resource Management / Whitewares

Moving Beyond "Good Clay"

August 1, 2011
KEYWORDS sustainability / tile
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Is sustainable ceramic manufacturing a thing of the future or an impossibility?



After much testing, Fireclay discovered how to best use recycled waste granite dust in its Debris Series Recycled Tile.

I remember learning at an early age that fire and earth are all we need to make pots to carry our water, tools, and food. As I grew up and started working more in ceramics, I quickly realized that the use of ceramics was born in the need for sustenance and practicality. Ceramic's malleability and durability makes it possible to use existing materials to fashion what you need.

The availability of raw materials has always been a driving force for the establishment of ceramic production. In the clay business, this meant that tile, roof tile or brick factories were set up on flat land near winnable clay. In the U.S., this initially meant the Midwest region in and around Ohio; production expanded to California in the late 1800s as the need for additional local sources increased. Due to the high prevalence of raw materials, searching for alternatives has not really been required-it's easier to just dig a new quarry or go deeper into the existing ground.

Investigating Recycled Materials

Today's ceramic industry is really no different from the past. Raw materials are plentiful, but now manufacturers are discovering that recycled materials provide compelling opportunities to rethink how ceramic products are made. Everywhere around us are potential raw materials that mimic clay and can be reformulated into a ceramic basis that is ideal for manufacturing tile.

We learned this the hard way at Fireclay Tile, but the results have far exceeded our expectations and prove that much remains possible for the future. With recycled materials, the time and energy spent collecting is much greater than mining or purchasing prepared clay. Similarly, the cost of materials can initially be higher than alternatives. With the already wide variability of high-fired ceramics, many manufacturers are focused on the challenge of simply making product rather than finding alternative raw materials. When recycled materials are researched thoroughly and thoughtfully, however, a new world of sustainable ceramic manufacturing becomes possible.

My partners and I started Fireclay Tile in San Jose, Calif., in 1986 on a shoestring budget. We pooled most of our meager savings together and-most importantly-brought our over 50 years of combined experience in tile making to develop our own custom-made line. From the start, we scavenged for anything useful we could find. Our factory tables were put together with discarded lumber and old pallets. We collected used boxes from a nearby pet supply distributor to pack our tiles.

Sometimes we were "penny wise and pound foolish." We would spend hours scavenging leftover cardboard for packing material when our time really could have been better spent mixing clay and glazes. However, this scavenging from our initial startup phase soon became part of our company DNA.


Word somehow got out that the folks at Fireclay Tile enjoyed experimenting, and many materials were sent to us to see if we could possibly use them in our process. Most of these trials and experiments were wild goose chases. For example, a friend of a friend once sent us some yeast cakes from Anheuser Busch to see if we could use them in our clay body. Not knowing a thing about the brewing process, I opened the 5-gal bucket in the side yard. The next thing I knew, I was lying on the ground and staring up at the clouds. The strong odor of the yeast cakes had literally knocked me down. I resealed the bucket and sent it back without any additional testing. It seems that some materials just aren't meant for tile manufacturing.

The cost of materials is also important. One thing we learned early on is that you must establish a price for someone's so-called "waste" before undergoing research and development trials. In 1990, we were contacted by a Silicon Valley chipmaker to see if we could incorporate spent abrasives from sandblasting electronic parts into a clay body. The material produced a rich reddish brown clay body that seemed attractive to us, and in all of our discussions the spent abrasive material was described as a landfill-bound waste product. The chipmaker said that we might need to pay some transportation costs, but since the material was close by the cost would be minimal.

The company provided us with free samples of material 1 ton at a time over a six-month period, and we ran a series of tests starting from small 10-lb sample mixes to eventual 1/2-ton batches. When we were ready to move forward and talk about getting a truckload of material, we needed to establish a price. All of a sudden, the company had large handling costs with this material and the price they demanded was $60 per ton, twice as much as the $30 per ton we paid for our local high-quality clay. We would have saved a lot of time and energy if we had determined the cost prior to beginning the testing process.

At this time, we also learned the importance of testing. A very important step when considering the use of a new raw material is to have it chemically analyzed. Testing typically costs a few hundred dollars and takes less than two weeks; many independent labs throughout the country offer this service.

Beyond discovering the basic chemical components, it is important to have materials tested for toxic components. You need to know what you are dealing with before using any material. At Fireclay, we have always been aggressive about reducing the toxicity in our materials. In the 1980s, we were one of the first manufacturers to remove lead from our glazes. We continue to mix each and every glaze we make by hand, and today our lead-free glazes are still products we take pride in. Reducing toxicity levels in materials is equally important when it comes to sustainability, especially for employees.

The author scavenges for recycled porcelain at a San Francisco dump.

Successful Alternatives

All of these early lessons learned benefited us as we continued to grow the company. In 1998, Fireclay Tile was approached by Paul Lessard, the chief environmental engineer at Granite Rock Co., one of the largest granite quarries in Northern California, to see if we could develop a product using granite fines. The company had been generating this granite dust as a waste product at its quarries and asphalt-making operations. For 80 years, they had been trying to find better uses for this byproduct without success. As it happens, the rock quarry was literally next door to our main manufacturing facility in Aromas, Calif., and the company also operated an asphalt plant in San Jose generating the dust that we could use in our San Jose-based production.

After two years of testing, we were still unable to make a high-quality product from this material. In trying to utilize this byproduct, my initial thought was to develop a product that was made up almost entirely of the granite dust. The problem was that the resulting product was unappealing. We soon realized that by decreasing the amount of dust we were using and incorporating post-consumer recycled glass and other materials, we would be more successful. A better looking, more sellable product would eliminate far more waste from landfills than if the product was unattractive. We settled on a tile that included 25% of the dust and an overall recycled content of over 50%, while maintaining our tradition of quality ceramic products.

After investigating different post-industrial recycled materials for over 10 years, we finally had a steady local supply of post-industrial material that was reliable and available. We've produced this product, our Debris Series Recycled Tile, since then with success, though most people still choose our tile because of how it looks rather than its environmental benefits. This experience has also provided us with a platform to go to other suppliers of possible recycled materials with a credible story, allowing us to incorporate other interesting products such as spent abrasives from industrial water pipes and porcelain. Without those early trials and tribulations, people today would never take us seriously.

Over time, we've found that using recycled materials as substitutes for clay is difficult because, even if the raw material might be suitable, it is rarely in the right form and must then be processed. Thus, four factors need to be brought together:
  • Capability of producing a product that has a market demand
  • Availability of post-industrial or post-consumer materials
  • Ability to process the material for factory production
  • Local supply and processing (100 miles or less)
While many people have referred to Fireclay as pioneers, I believe that what we're doing has been done forever. One example is McNear Brick, a northern California brickmaker, which has creatively tackled the problem of locally sourced materials. McNear Brick has been producing brick in the San Francisco Bay area since 1868. The company originally set up in an area with easily winnable clay, but over time, as the Bay Area expanded and the company grew, the clay on the property diminished.

McNear then got the idea to use unneeded construction dirt in its process. The company created a clay management system of blending different groupings of earth into a consistent red brick clay body. This creates a non-landfill means for depositing waste, and it also means that McNear's clay supply will never diminish. By investing in R&D early to determine the best method of testing local waste materials for compatibility, McNear found a way to remove materials from the waste stream while providing itself with a never-ending supply of raw material.

Additional Efforts

A number of other companies are doing a great job with sustainable production right now. Others have chosen to focus purely on power supply and alternative forms of renewable energy to power facilities. Still others have concentrated their efforts on internal waste streams, creating new products to accommodate these otherwise landfill-bound materials.

We do something similar at Fireclay, both through energy retrofit initiatives and closed-loop manufacturing to reuse wastewater and find ways to reprocess scrap material. All of these are great sustainable manufacturing methodologies, and each company needs to determine which is right for them.

I believe that sustainable manufacturing using locally sourced materials will increase in the future and is not just a possibility but a necessity. It takes time to develop new systems and wean factories from the ease and reliability of what they have done for the last 150 years; it may take another 150 years to reach true sustainability.

What is important is that we all think a bit more creatively about our materials. At Fireclay, we've created processes that are less expensive than traditional means and rely on abundant recycled materials. If we can do it, anyone can.

For more information, contact Fireclay Tile at 495 W. Julian St., San Jose, CA 92107; call (408) 275-1182; email info@fireclaytile.com; or visit www.fireclaytile.com.

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