Ceramics are a confusing issue. Are they like glass? Actually they aren’t, because they don’t melt. Are they organic, so they can be composted? No again! So they end up in garbage where their sharp corners are a danger, then in dumps, which is a waste and a shame.

A ceramic is most often made from clay that has been heated to where the particles partially melt together (sinter) and stick together into a rigid mass. The way to reuse a broken ceramic mass is thus obvious. Break the particles apart and return them to the clay that they were made from. This is best done by grinding the pieces in a mill, but second best would be simply breaking the large pieces into powder with a large hammer or a flat tamping tool. The powder may not be valuable, since it is just ordinary clay, but at least it can be distributed onto soil with no ill effect and it is not filling up dumps. Some excessively sandy soils may benefit from the addition of clay powder.

Some ceramics, known as refractories, usually found in high tech or research ceramics, may be made from valuable or rare oxides, or even highly refined aluminum oxides (claylike) rather than simple clay. Recapturing the powder may be economically worthwhile.

Using a personal hammer for smashing broken teapots or flowerpots is satisfying but is not a large scale solution for society. What we need is a dedicated grinding mill that takes in all of a population’s broken ceramics and puts them through a power mill. Then the amount of powder would be significant and could be reused for new ceramics. More research would be useful, since not all ceramics are the same and they often have glazes.

One ceramic that is common and a bit valuable is porcelain which is made from a fine, white clay. There is a ton of this available from unwanted toilets and sinks. One tile maker in San Jose California makes a good living by milling bathroom fixtures back into clay and then remaking them as exquisite tiles. Read more.

Let’s not lose sight of the difference between recycling toilets by (1) smashing them into clay and (2) applying Zero Waste design.  A few points:

  • If there is no better way to use these products than smashing and milling them, then Zero Waste and grinding them to clay are almost the same. However, can the materials be better labeled to facilitate the highest form of reuse? Are all porcelains the same or is there a need to label the raw ceramic used by a label on the fixture?
  • Can the fixtures be designed for a more robust reuse plan? Are there weak points that could be strengthened? How is plumbing attached and could it be more modular or detachable? Can they be cleaned to look like new?
  • Can the styles of the fixtures be standardized so that unbroken fixtures would have a definite market? Can the fixtures be made more modular? Could any parts be bolted together, rather than simply being monolithic?

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