Have you ever thought about how you can recycle ceramics? Well, you’re in the right place.
From everyday plates and favourite coffee cups, to flower pots, sinks and outdoor tiles, ceramic items can be found in all corners of the home.
Like many other everyday items, we usually don’t spend too much time thinking about how our pottery, crockery and kitchen tiles are made. We probably spend even less time thinking about their environmental impact and sustainability record.
If you’re here now, you’ll be interested in ceramic recycling and to learn about the material’s environmental impact.
So, let’s take a look at the recyclability of ceramic, and how you can make sure you’re not contributing to landfill pollution with every broken mug, plate or pot you dispose of.
What is ceramic and how is it made?
The history of ceramics is rich and quite complex.
There are actually many different types of ceramic available on the market, with the three most common being:
Ceramic can be used to make all sorts of pottery, kitchen crockery, toilets and hard-wearing surfaces. I love a good earthenware mug with my favourite ethical coffee in for example.
In terms of how these items are made, the process is pretty straightforward.
Clay is the key material used to create all sorts of ceramic wares. Clay is of course a natural material that comes from the ground and is the oldest known natural ceramic. It’s used alongside earthen elements, powders and water to make household items.
Once shaped into the desired object, the clay prototype is then hardened inside an industrial kiln.
The finished product is hard yet brittle, resistant to oxidation, long-lasting, and resistant to heat – all this makes ceramic the perfect material for durable dinnerware.
Can you recycle ceramics?
All ceramic items will get chipped over time. And once the first few cracks have appeared, it won’t be long until the item finally breaks beyond repair.
When it’s time to stop using your ceramic plate or mug, you’ll want to dispose of it in the easiest and most eco-friendly way possible. However, this is definitely easier said than done.
If you’re dealing with a broken item, getting rid of your unwanted ceramic can be a challenge.
In fact, even though ceramics are made of natural materials and are biodegradable, they will still take thousands of years to decompose. And dumping it in the general waste bin is almost sacrilege to an environmentally minded person!
So, is ceramic recyclable?
Unfortunately, the answer is a little more complex than just a yes or no.
However, ceramic is also incredibly heat-resistant. Earthenware, porcelain or stoneware are almost impossible to melt in a standard recycling facility. This means that ceramic items cannot be recycled from home anywhere in the UK.
But while you definitely shouldn’t use your curbside bin for ceramic recycling, that doesn’t mean that you can’t find a way to recycle chipped plates, mugs and even tiles.
How to recycle ceramic plates and tiles?
So, what can you do to recycle ceramic effectively, or at least give your ceramics a new life?
If you’re dealing with broken ceramic or an item in poor condition, you can contact your local waste recycling centre to enquire about their ceramic recycling policies and arrange a drop-off.
Note that, depending on your location, your nearest household waste facility might be quite far away, so it’s worth waiting until you have collected enough unusable ceramic before making the trip!
My local recycling centre says to put broken pottery items into the general waste bin, which is less than ideal. However, there are other options.
Donating is a more sustainable option than recycling anyway, as ceramic recycling does include plenty of energy-intensive processes.
When it comes to recycling tiles and chunky ceramic fixtures like toilets and sinks, your best bet will be to get in touch with a commercial recycling facility — they should be more than happy to take cracked bathroom fixtures off your hands!
If you do have broken crockery on your hands, it’s possible to reuse them in your garden.
Any smaller chips may act as a bit of character for a plant pot, but if your plate has been shattered, then the shards can be added to the bottom of garden pots or soil beds to aid with good drainage.
If you’re interested in gardening, here are some good tips on rewilding your garden for the good of nature and the environment.
Is ceramic sustainable?
Taken at face value, ceramic does seem like a pretty sustainable material.
Ceramic is incredibly durable, food-safe, and made from biodegradable materials that are abundant in nature. This is all great.
On top of that, we tend to prize and protect our best ceramic items, making them last even longer. High-end ceramics can be pricey and fragile, so are usually kept safely stored as the ace up your sleeve you only bring out to impress guests.
But just because you’re not using your ‘good’ plates and mugs as often, that doesn’t mean that they won’t experience their fair share of wear and tear as well!
On the negative side for ceramic sustainability, a material that cannot be easily recycled and can take up to a million years to degrade in the landfill cannot be considered sustainable.
Recycling and biodegradable challenges aside, ceramics are also problematic when it comes to their manufacturing. The kilns used to dry the clay mixture consume massive amounts of energy as they need to reach temperatures in the thousands of degrees.
To create a finished product, ceramic items also need glazing so they can be coloured and decorated. The glazing process involves adding a layer of vitreous (glass-like) substances to the product, which is what makes natural degradation so challenging.
Yeast and fungi cannot penetrate a glazed ceramic like they would with raw clay, so that’s why ceramic takes longer to biodegrade than even plastic bags or tins!
So, does ceramic have an environmental impact?
Still, this doesn’t mean that ceramic cannot be considered an eco-friendly material.
At the end of the day, ceramic does have a negative impact on our environment, but only in the same way that glass, stainless steel, and many other everyday materials do. So it’s your outlook on what sustainability truly means that will drive your opinion on it!
While cooking at extremely high temperatures, ceramic requires less heat and energy than glass to create the same number of wares, and it is a lot more sustainable than plastic too.
If you value durability more than other factors, you’ll find that ceramics fare pretty well on the sustainability scale.
While fragile, ceramic mugs are still more durable than glass when faced with extreme changes in temperature. They are also very far from being single-use, while we throw away plastic and paper plates or cups at unsustainable rates.
But when it comes to disposal, ceramics are a problematic addition to our landfills.
Before I put this article together, I would have assumed ceramics to be very sustainable, but until we can find a better way to recycle broken pieces, their life cycle will always be a little too short with too few ways to recycle ceramic at the end of its life.
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