Look on the underside of your favorite coffee mug.  What do you see?  You see the name of the company which manufactured it.  What do you not see there?  You do not see the universal recycling symbol (?).  You don’t see the recycling symbol on the underside of kitchenware items which are made from ceramics because it’s not there. 

There are a number of different kinds of ceramics that are used in the manufacturing of kitchenware items today, and almost all of them are potentially recyclable. 

Until the twentieth century, all ceramics throughout the world were made from clay.  Today, the ceramic cups, plates, pitchers and bowls that you find in your kitchen are made both from ceramics which are made from clay as well as from ceramics which are made from other base materials. Ceramics which are made from clay as well as most ceramics which are made from other materials are potentially recyclable.

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Unlike plastics which I wrote about in an article which appeared in the March 13th, 2017 edition of The Pavlovic Today, most ceramics are relatively harmless when they end up in landfills.  The inner layer of ceramic items are made from either baked clay or other materials which have been heated to high temperatures, and the outer layers of ceramic kitchenware items contain glazes and dyes which create the designs, decorations, patterns and logos which we enjoy seeing on our plates, mugs, pitchers, pots, etc. 

All of the dyes which are used in manufacturing kitchenware have been approved for use in kitchen products by the relevant regulatory agencies in the countries which those items are manufactured in, so all of the dyes and coloring agents which we see on our plates, pitchers and cups are non-toxic.  Because kitchenware ceramic items are made entirely from non-toxic materials, ceramic kitchenware items do not leach chemicals into the ground as they break up into smaller fragments over time, and because ceramics are mostly harmless in landfills, people rarely attempt to propose discussing the possibility of recycling them.

The process of ceramics recycling

Archaeologists have been finding pottery and fragments of pottery which were made from baked clay at archaeology sites throughout the world for centuries.  The earliest pots, vases and amphorae were made from heated clay.  It’s likely that when those items broke, people reused the fragments for other purposes.

The difference between ancient ceramics and modern ceramics is that ancient ceramics were made from baked clay with very few other ingredients added.  Modern earthenware, stoneware, porcelain and china are made from baked clay with quite a few other chemicals added.  Modern ceramics are covered with a large variety of glazes, most of which contain a vast assortment of chemicals in them. 

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The process of recycling ceramics that are made from clay is somewhat comparable to the process of recycling bricks, except that not all bricks have a glazed exterior layer as ceramics do.  As I’ve mentioned, while the exterior glazed layers of items which are made from ceramics are not always recyclable, the inner layers usually are. 

If politicians and candidates who are running for office research this issue, they’ll recognize the reasons that this issue is important, and they’ll likely want to allocate the funds needed to enable ceramics recycling facilities.

It’s less likely that people will want to recycle items which are made from the most expensive kinds of ceramics such as porcelain and china because when those items become damaged, they’re still valuable and most people will opt to repair items which are valuable or sell them if they no longer want to keep them, however if ceramics are included in household recycling programs at some point in the future, porcelain and china are recyclable materials too. 

The process of recycling porcelain and china will be very similar to the process of recycling the more inexpensive kinds of ceramics. 

Why aren’t kitchenware ceramics presently being recycled?

The process of recycling ceramics is costly and time consuming because it involves several steps. 

The technologies for this are not anything terribly new and have been well understood for several decades now.  However the process is very expensive, which is the reason that there are only a small handful of recycling facilities which recycle ceramic kitchenware items in most countries.   

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I’m proposing that governments throughout the world consider including ceramic items such as common kitchenware items with household recycling.  We need to be thinking about the cumulative tons of ceramic kitchenware items that are being sent to landfills throughout the world every year. 

If politicians and candidates who are running for office research this issue, I think that they’ll recognize the reasons that this issue is important, and they’ll likely want to allocate the funds which will be needed to enable recycling facilities to expand and which will make it cost effective for new recycling facilities to open.  

How can ceramics be recycled?

The reason that most recycling companies don’t attempt to recycle kitchenware items which are made from ceramics is because recycling kitchenware ceramics will only become cost effective if it can be accomplished on a vast scale. 

The process of recycling ceramics is costly and time consuming.

The agencies which are responsible for administering municipal recycling would need to contract with companies which recycle ceramics.  The ceramic items that people would be placing in their household recycling bins would be sorted along with glass, metals, paper, cardboard and plastics at transfer stations, and then the ceramic items would be sent to companies which specialize in recycling ceramics.  This could be accomplished either by allocating fund so that the companies which recycle ceramics from demolition waste such as toilets, sinks and bathtubs can expand their facilities so that they can also process ceramic kitchenware items, or new companies which specialize specifically in recycling ceramics from discarded kitchenware can open.

What can be done?

Almost no government agencies in any countries that I know of are allocating any funding at all for researching this issue. 

While it’s not terribly difficult to notice that species of plants and animals are becoming endangered and some species are becoming extinct, and that air and water throughout the world are dangerously polluted with toxic chemicals, it’s not so obvious that clay and the metals and minerals that are used as base materials in ceramics too are all finite resources. 

We need to ensure that any materials which can be recycled will be recycled.

The danger is not necessarily that the world’s supply of clay will ever be entirely used up, rather the danger is that the companies which mine clay are disturbing the shores of rivers and lakes that could be left alone and designated as protected parklands by the process of extracting it.  If more items which are made from ceramics are recycled, then less clay will need to be extracted from the shores and the beds of bodies of water throughout the world, and therefore less land will need to be disturbed.  This is becoming increasingly important now, if governments throughout the world cannot set aside more land as national parks and national forests, then we will continue to see more habitat loss and the loss of more species.

Recycling ceramics will not result in anybody losing jobs anywhere.  There will still be plenty of demand for clay for other uses.  The existing sites which companies mine clay from will remain operational.  This will reduce the number of new sites that will need to be used for mining clay in future years.  Recycling ceramics would in fact create jobs because it would create new recycling facilities and expand existing recycling companies throughout the world.

 The only way this will ever be proposed, approved or implemented is if politicians and candidates who are running for office become aware of this issue.   If you feel that this issue is important to you, then discuss this with politicians and with candidates who are running for office. 

Recycling ceramics will not result in anybody losing jobs anywhere.

The environmental movement began in the 1920’s. Prior to the start of the environmental movement, almost no one anywhere in the world was thinking about habitat loss, endangered species, overfishing, deforestation, water pollution or air pollution.  People are now paying a lot more attention to all of those issues, and we now understand how the world’s ecosystems are dependent upon each other.  Without healthy substrate, plants cannot grow, and without biodiversity of plants, we’ll lose more species of animals and we also need biodiversity of plants for clean air. 

The only way to preserve the remaining ecosystems of the world is to create conditions which will enable the governments of the world to set aside more land for wildlife refuges, nature centers and parks.  We need to ensure that any materials which can be recycled will be recycled, and while in recent years in many countries people have been paying an increasing amount of attention to recycling items which are made from metals, glass, cardboard, paper and plastics, recycling ceramic kitchenware is still largely being ignored.    

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Scott Benowitz

Scott Benowitz is a staff writer for Afterimage Review. He holds an MSc in Comparative Politics from The London School of Economics & Political Science and a B.A. in International Studies from Reed...

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