How Kohler turned production 'waste' into a new tile line

Kohler, Ann Sacks, Crackle Collection
Kohler WasteLAB
Iron slag byproducts help create the rich mahogany and amber hues.

A half-dozen years ago, inspired by a biomimicry presentation during an annual company innovation retreat, tile and fixtures manufacturer Kohler created its WasteLAB. The idea: Experiment with nonhazardous vitreous and cast iron byproducts from the company’s production facilities, and assess their worth as materials that could be reused in other ways.

This spring, the WasteLAB introduced its first product based on these circular economy principles: a new ceramic line, the Ann Sacks Crackle Collection. 

The "body" of the tiles is made from otherwise landfill-bound pottery cull — broken pieces, if you will — from the toilet-making process. (The exact content of recycled materials isn’t disclosed, but the company says it’s "almost 100 percent.") The scraps are pressed into powder and then molded into the appropriate shape. The amber and mahogany hues are derived from iron slag, and the glazes are made from enamel powders and leftover glaze collected during the processing of toilets, bathtubs and sinks.

Theresa Millard, project manager for sustainability and stewardship with the Kohler WasteLAB, said the performance of the Crackle Collection is the same as tiles made entirely of new materials, which was a major consideration for the design team. Indeed, the products are tested to the same commercial standards as any other Kohler product, Millard said.

"Nature doesn’t have waste," she said. "We spent a lot of time questioning why something is good one moment and the next moment it’s trash."

DeeDee Gundberg, director of product development and design for Ann Sacks, said the tiles are marketed alongside sister offerings, with the sales team sharing the origin story. The rich colors made possible by the slag, along with the definition of its crackled surface, have resonated with early customers, Gundberg said.

"The response has been incredible," she wrote in response to questions submitted by GreenBiz. "Sometimes a client falls in love with the tile because it’s the perfect color for their space, and as soon as they hear the story behind the tile, they develop a deeper emotional connection."

Kohler, Ann Sacks, Crackle Collection
Kohler WasteLab
It took more than three years to design and refine the production process for the tiles.

This was not an overnight success

Millard, a ceramics artist by training who has been involved in product development for more than 15 years, said it took the Kohler designers in the WasteLab almost three years to figure this out and 18 months to get things right.

In large part, that’s because traditional production considerations, such as concerns over yield, aren’t really applicable in the WasteLAB. That means the tiles currently need to be manufactured using techniques that are separate from Kohler’s traditional operations — the lab operates separately, although the long-term vision is to embed these production ideas across the company’s sites.

Other considerations dictated the design: what quantities they could expect from the manufacturing line, especially as improvements are made; what price point customers would accept; as well as whether the tiles would require dramatically different sorts of packaging for protection during shipment. 

"Persistence is something you have to embody, and there is a lot of technical work," Millard said. "You have to prove the hypothesis. Things might not add up the same."

With this first product on the market, the WasteLAB team is working on additional ways in which Kohler byproducts can be used in "salable" product offerings. "We understand maybe 5 percent of what’s possible with this material set," she said.

As Kohler builds out its broad circular economy strategies, the WasteLAB team is also involved in other projects aimed at thinking of new uses for "waste" materials, such as how to reduce, or shred and reuse the corrugated cardboard from packaging in different applications for smaller, three-dimensional objects. "The biggest opportunity is the conversation that we can foster with others," Millard said.