Dec. 2, 2009
Our friends Kevin and Aleida at Thread Collaborative conducted an interview with Paul at GreenBuild last month. We think they did a GREAT job highlighting why we love working at Fireclay and the mission of the company.
The post can be viewed here, and we have copied the text below:
stories of sustainability: Fireclay Tile
by kevin, on December 2nd, 2009
For anyone unfamiliar with Fireclay Tile, they are a manufacturer of wonderful handcrafted artisan tiles located in San Jose CA. I say artisan because their approach, character, manner, and products are more aligned with old-world ideals than modern technology. Just before the exhibition floor opened at Greenbuild 2009, Aleida and I had the pleasure of sitting down with Paul Burns, the founder and chief ceramicist of Fireclay Tile, to talk about company history and personal back story.
Paul started the business with three partners in 1986 but tile production runs in the family. He learned the trade from his uncle when he was just ten years old. Paul is a tinkerer and problem solver at heart. He describes himself as a scavenger interested in efficiency rather than someone with hard core environmental concerns. Although many of his products are composed of recycled material, their creation has come about due to Paul’s impulse to fashion unique solutions and uncover value where others only see useless waste. He seems to thrive in situations where others have tried and failed.
A key year for the company came in 1998 when an adjacent business, one of the largest rock quarries in Northern California, approached Paul with an intriguing challenge — what to do with a by-product of their asphalt gravel production process. After more than eighty years of production the company had accumulated a tremendous quantity of waste rock dust and had yet to develop a use for it. This kind of task seemed perfectly suited to Paul’s disposition, but after a year of research he was still struggling to convert the substance into a viable commercial product. With so much of it available, Paul’s first inclination was to use as much as possible and produce a tile made with a very high percentage of the rock dust. But he discovered the same shortfall as others before him — the stuff was hard to work with.
Another year was spent approaching the issue from a different angle. Instead of maximizing the dust content but creating a terribly unattractive product, he decided to pull back on the dust to determine the point where he could produce an attractive and marketable tile. The final mix used twenty-six percent, and the Debris Series tile was born. That line now also includes twenty-six percent post-consumer glass and six percent spent abrasive from pipe sand blasting. Today the formulation has more than sixty percent recycled content with approximately forty percent being post-consumer.
As Paul describes it, “the thing about clay and ceramics is that there’s flexibility in the chemicals and formulas so they easily accept the use of other materials into the mix.” Although I knew a bit about ceramic processes prior to this interview, that was new to me. He went on to say, “once you fire the product, you purify it. If impurities exist, even bacteria or other harmful compounds, they are made inert when fired.” One example of this was when another local company was discontinuing the use of lead-based glazes for ceramic products. Fireclay Tile mixed the toxic glaze into the body of their tile and essentially sealed the lead, rendered it harmless, and diverted it away from potential environmental harm had it ended up in a landfill.
Armed with knowledge accumulated through the two years required to bring the Debris Series to market, Paul started looking at other opportunities to utilize other waste material. The post consumer recycled glass used in the Debris tiles is actually a waste material rather than recycled. Super fine dust is created during the crushing process after used glass bottles are collected, sorted, and ground into cullet. The cullet is then most commonly used to create new glass, but the dust isn’t typically employed in the same manner. Its small size makes it difficult to clean and sort so it rarely ends up in recycled glass, but it can be used as a filler material for other products. Fireclay’s Bottlestone counter top line are slabs composed of eighty percent waste glass dust.
Other companies have also approached Paul with interesting challenges for utilizing specific waste products produced by their businesses, but we were sworn to secrecy and will hopefully be allowed to give a sneak peek when the products get closer to launch. But I have to say that one in particular sounds really interesting. I can’t wait to see how it progresses.
In addition to developing new products, Paul and his team are constantly looking to maximize their efficiency by using waste from their own facility as raw material for tile products. They’ve started looking into a take-back program, but may limit the scope regionally. Fireclay is very locally minded and is concerned about the overall environmental impact of a product requiring long distance delivery for limited reclaim potential. As an example, the current formulation of Bottlestone limits recycle content of waste Bottlestone to just five percent. They are working on how to increase that number.
Similar to a take-back program is an interesting test they’re currently running. They’re working with the cities of San Jose, San Francisco, and Santa Cruz to collect as many toilets, sinks, and tubs as possible - they need nearly ten truckloads - to use in the Debris series. Paul says early tests are producing unexpected results. One would presume with so much white vitreous china ground up and added to the clay body, the tile color would be light, but instead it’s dark and gray. The fixtures are pulverized to create a grog which gets mixed in with new clay. Since the grog has already been fired once, it’s far more stable. It’s still too early to tell where this experiment is headed, but I’ll report on it as soon as I hear or see anything.
You would think that Paul’s degree in science from UC Berkley would serve him well with the kind of production problems he’s routinely solving when developing new products, but he likes to say that all the science he uses he learned in high school. With his easygoing nature, it’s easy to hear that and believe him too quickly. But after just thirty minutes with him I get the sense that some serious brain power is being applied.
Although we have never worked together directly, I have been involved with a number of projects where Fireclay Tile products were used and I’ve always been impressed. I can easily recommend this company to anyone interested in using environmentally favorable materials. Do you have any experience with Paul and/or Fireclay? We would love to hear about it.
Thank you, Paul, for your time.