If you aren’t able to repair or repurpose the item, place broken ceramic or porcelain items in a sturdy bag and put it in the trash. Most municipalities in the US, including those in Washington, do not accept ceramic or porcelain for recycling
Why is this a problem?
Ceramic waste poses an environmental challenge for three reasons: recycling issues/hazards, energy consumption/emissions, toxic chemicals and lead exposure.
Recycling Issues and Hazards
Ceramic is not accepted in recycling programs. If they do end up at recycling facilities, ceramic pieces are automatically sorted into the glass stream. However, ceramics and heat-treated glass meant for multiple uses, like Pyrex®, are composed of different chemical compounds that strengthen the material but present real challenges for recycling – including damaging recycling equipment.² This is because they have a different melting temperature from glass. A single piece of ceramic or porcelain can cause a shut down of an entire batch of molten glass, causing expensive delays in processing. Additionally, if combined in the recyclate, the incompatible chemical structures can significantly weaken resulting products.³
Ceramic production is not only energy intensive, involving lots of fuel required to produce and sustain the very high heat needed for the baking and firing processes, it produces significant toxic emissions throughout the production cycle including: particulate matter, Nitrogen Oxides, Carbon Monoxide, Carbon Dioxide, Sulfur Dioxide, Hydrogen Fluoride, VOCs, and heavy metals.⁴ While there are new methods of ceramic production being tested that have the potential to reduce the energy intensity and emissions output of the process⁵, they remain at the experimental stage and are not yet scalable.
Current production methods expose workers to the aforementioned variety of airborne nanoparticles, many of which are associated with cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. Their small size allows for deeper intrusion into the tissues of the respiratory system and thus are generally more toxic than larger particles, making exposure especially dangerous for individuals working closely with the production process.⁶
Lead Glazes in Ceramic
Many ceramic items, especially older ones, have lead in the glazes that give them color. This lead can leach into food or liquids that come into contact with the ceramic and, ultimately, end up in our bodies. Exposure to lead can cause a variety of health problems including severe cognitive impairment and, in extreme cases, death. Children are particularly vulnerable. lead-test kit are readily available at hardware stores, drug stores, and some grocers.
There are several alternatives to putting your ceramic items in the trash after they’ve outlived their original purpose with you. Whether or not your item is broken there’s always a chance someone else can find a use for it on Craigslist, Freecycle, Buy Nothing groups, or giveaway tables at community repair and swap events.
- If it’s not broken, give it away!
First off, ask yourself if the piece is fully intact and functional. Perhaps it’s just a little dated or no longer needed? If so, take it to the nearest donation center. If you have a “set” of something, see if your local community center, place of worship, or similar establishment might be interested in having it for their kitchen.
- If it’s broken
If the item is damaged, consider the following options:
- Repair: Sand down a chipped edge, dab with a permanent marker of a comparable (or even contrasting color), add a couple layers of clear nail polish and keep using it. The Japanese practice of Kintsugi elevates repair to an art form!
- Use whole plates or large bowls underneath pots that need a water catcher.
- Large shallow dishes/platters make great birdbaths!
- Use chipped mugs, small bowls, and teacups to scoop things like soil, fertilizer, petfood, etc. You can just leave it in the container!
- Reuse pieces:
- Break it up and use it in the bottom of flower pots to improve drainage.
- Break up and make a mosaic or create stepping stones
- Donate to willing location:
- Schools, community centers, or studios that teach art classes often accept repurposed materials for use in projects
- You might also reach out to local construction recycling or gravel yards that accept bricks and concrete. In some cases, they will also accept ceramics. Recycled ceramic can be made into useful products such as drainage materials, rock base for driveways and paths or as composite material for aggregates.⁷
- Sending to the landfill
If you’re not able to revive, repurpose, or reallocate your old ceramics and you must dispose of them, please do the following: a) make sure any sharp edges are cushioned with tape or similar, and b) place the chipped materials in a separate bag (and label it). This protects your local sanitation workers from potentially nasty cuts!
|Do not “donate” broken ceramic or porcelain items to the thrift store. It is just a longer trip to the landfill.
When individuals donate broken ceramic or porcelain items to a local thrift store, there’s no guarantee that they won’t go directly into the trash. Why is this? Organizations that accept donations are often inundated with items that are broken. In response, these donated items are ultimately sent to the landfill to make room for items in working, re-sellable order.
Ultimately, we would like to see drop off locations, potentially at transfer stations, for broken ceramics and porcelain, so that the material can be collected at a scale where it is easy to crush and use in construction materials.
What Zero Waste Washington is doing
Zero Waste Washington and its partners are working to strengthen repair and re-use around our state by:
- hosting fixer events
- providing support to the repair community and tool libraries
- Increasing public awareness about repair and re-use as alternatives.
- Supporting “Reuse” rooms at transfer stations and other recycling drop off locations.
- King Co. “What Do I Do With…” Search Tool. https://info.kingcounty.gov/Services/recycling-garbage/Solid-Waste/what-do-i-do-with/Search?q=64&serves=b&sort=Distance
- Giacoppo, J. How to Recycle ‘Weird’ Glass. February 7, 2011. https://earth911.com/home-garden/how-to-recycle-weird-glass/
- Recyclebank. What Should I Do with My Chipped Dishes and Bowls? September 27, 2019. https://livegreen.recyclebank.com/column/because-you-asked/what-should-i-do-with-my-chipped-dishes-and-bowls
- EPA. AP-42: Compilation of Air Emissions Factors, Fifth Edition, CH 11.7: Ceramic Products Manufacturing. Supplement B, July 1996. https://www3.epa.gov/ttnchie1/ap42/ch11/final/c11s07.pdf
- Ceramics.org. “Environmentally-friendly method of manufacturing ceramics may reduce carbon footprint, render kilns obsolete.” March 3, 2017. https://ceramics.org/ceramic-tech-today/environmentally-friendly-method-of-manufacturing-ceramics-may-reduce-carbon-footprint-render-kilns-obsolete
- Aristeidis Voliotis, et al. “Nanoparticle emissions from traditional pottery manufacturing.” Environ. Sci.: Processes Impacts, 2014, 16, 1489-1494. Journal of the Royal Society of Chemistry. https://pubs.rsc.org/en/content/articlehtml/2014/em/c3em00709j
- Planet Ark Business Recycling. “Ceramics.” https://businessrecycling.com.au/recycle/ceramics