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Crushed Porcelain From Old Toilets Transformed Into a Valuable Resource

crushed porcelain old toilets NYC
(Photo: The new public school field in Flushing, Queens. Credit: NYC DEP)

Upgrades to plumbing fixtures in 500 large New York City Department of Education buildings is producing a significant amount of old porcelain. Rather than trashing all of that, the city’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) reprocesses the porcelain into a valuable material for ecological restoration and infrastructure projects.

Existing toilets date back to before the 1980s and use 5 gallons per flush, whereas the new 3-bolt American Standard Rapidway commercial toilets use 1.28 gallons per flush, the company said. Retrofitting all of the DOE’s 30,000 water-guzzling toilets with efficient ones could save about four million gallons of water per day, according to a DEP estimate. Water efficiency is crucial as repair work on the leaking Delaware Aqueduct intensifies.

Recycling the porcelain initially started in May 2015, according to a recent DEP case study published in One Water NYC: 2018 Water Demand Plan. “Rather than disposing of the old fixtures in a dumpster, they were instead returned to a facility and processed,” the case study says. “The crushed material was then stored at two separate New York City Department of Sanitation sites for weatherizing, to ensure cleaner material.”

An initial project mixed 6,500 crushed fixtures with oyster and clam shells for building an artificial receiver reef for breeding oysters in Jamaica Bay. The shell beds are part of a broader effort to restore one billion oysters to New York Harbor, the New York Times reported.

“Each adult oyster can filter dozens of gallons of water each day, and an oyster bed can reduce the force of waves on wetlands, protecting the coast from erosion,” Samantha Schmidt wrote at the time.

As toilet retrofits continued, another project used crushed porcelain as clean fill for rain gardens, according to DEP. Six rain gardens replaced crushed stone with the recycled material. DEP reported that the gardens are being monitored to ensure that they function as effectively as traditionally built ones.

After successfully using the crushed plumbing fixtures in small green infrastructure assets, DEP collected material from 3,500 fixtures to use as fill for an on-site project at Public School 120Q in Flushing, Queens.

“Similar to the rain gardens, crushed porcelain was used instead of crushed stone as porous fill underneath a new turf field,” the case study says. “The turf field now acts as a large sponge that can retain up to 500,000 gallons of stormwater per year.” That should alleviate pressure on the sewer system and reduce overflows into the nearby creek.

Crushed stone tends to be inexpensive, DEP water demand program manager Ben Huff told Municipal Sewer & Water Magazine in March. “But we understood the long-term costs could prove to be better using the recycled porcelain,” he said. At the moment, DEP has more playground projects in development, Huff added.

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