Good-looking Glass: Use Recycled Glass for Kitchen and Bath Tile

Rediscovery of an ancient art helps take care of today’s trash.


Penny Livingston-Stark and James Stark installed this iridescent glass tile from Oceanside at the threshold to their home in Northern California.

Photo by Paul Bousquet

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Of the 40 million tons of glass thrown away each year, only 40 percent is recycled. Twenty-four millions tons are lost to landfills.

Today’s homeowners are not the first to be dazzled by the lustrous look of glass tiles. The Romans and Egyptians began using glass to adorn their walls and floors around 200 a.d. One thousand years later, the Venetians developed glass-making processes that helped create the glass tile mosaics that can still be found throughout Italy. In the late nineteenth century, Louis C. Tiffany further refined the process; his richly glowing iridescent creations were used in many of the period’s most magnificent homes.

Homeowners’ reasons for rediscovering this ancient building material are not at all surprising. Glass tile has many aesthetic as well as practical advantages over other wall- and floor-covering options. Most apparent is its appearance. Glass tile offers a jewel-like translucency and illusion of depth that cannot be obtained with stone, ceramic tile, or solid-surface materials. Compared with the cavelike feel of granite or marble, glass-tiled baths evoke a feeling more reminiscent of a placid pond or a secluded cove.

Despite their delicate appearance, glass tiles are about as tough a surface as you can get. Glass is naturally stain-proof—spills can usually be removed with a damp sponge. Unlike most clay-bodied tiles, glass tiles are completely impervious to water, which makes them ideal for areas where they might have to withstand repeated freeze-thaw cycles, such as a garden ponds or swimming pools.

There are high-end, primarily European manufacturers, such as Bisazza of Italy, that make opulent glass tiles from new raw materials. Here in the States, things have taken a more environmentally friendly twist. Big manufacturers and small glass shops are using beer bottles, windshields, and post-consumer glass as the raw materials for their tile masterpieces.

Recycled glass renaissance

The glass tile industry is quite small in the United States. Glass tile production accounts for less than 1 percent of tile production, and in most cases small shops lead the movement. When Oceanside Glasstile of Carlsbad, California, was founded in 1992, for example, the company produced fifty square feet of tile per day; today the facility produces that same amount of tile in minutes. Oceanside’s tiles are made from 85 percent recycled glass. Recently, the company won a $1.4 million business loan from the California Integrated Waste Management Board, the state’s primary recycling agency. Oceanside’s increased production will allow it to use 3,000 tons of recycled glass in five years.

Like Oceanside, other companies have sprung up wherever there is a large quantity of raw material. Sandhill Industries in Boise, Idaho, buys broken and discarded glass from local window manufacturers. The homogenous quality of the raw material enables the company to create a uniform tile that’s 100 percent recycled glass. Minute amounts of dye are used to produce thirty-five different jewel-like tints. Seattle’s Bedrock Industries’ tiles, which have a handmade appearance, vary slightly in size, shape, and color, depending upon the glass that the company culls from curbside waste.

The beauty of glass comes at a price, however. Artisan-quality glass tiles start at about $20 to $30 per square foot. Comparatively, granite and marble cost about $15 per square foot, and good-quality standard tile can be had for as little as $4 per square foot. It is possible to introduce glass tiles into your design without breaking the bank by using them as accents or borders.

Working with glass

Glass tiles need to be treated somewhat differently than their clay-bodied brethren. They’re significantly harder, which means you’ll need a wet saw or a diamond blade to trim tiles down to size (ceramic tiles are a cinch to score and snap). In addition, you must pay attention to the setting material. Standard gray-brown mastics and mortars will muddy the luminescent color that makes these tiles special. Manufacturers generally recommend using a light-colored adhesive. Remember that bubbles or other adhesive imperfections will show, so you’ll need to be extra careful during installation, or consider hiring a pro.

Glass tiles can also be used in ways you’d never think of using standard tile. Taking full advantage of its translucency, Bolton and other installers have epoxied tiles onto glass doors and mirrors, creating tiles that appear to float in space. Instead of attaching tiles onto walls, some designers have built walls around the tile. Creating backlit metal frames transforms simple tiles into stained-glass murals.

Hybrid glass tiles

Instead of building the tiles entirely from glass, several companies have patented ways of substituting recycled glass, an inexpensive raw material, for materials that would otherwise need to be manufactured or mined. The end result is an environmentally friendly product that’s competitive with conventional tile. One such company, Terra Green Technologies, mixes glass from automobile and airplane windshields with a ceramic base to create three lines of tile. Terra Green’s tiles contain 55 to 70 percent recycled glass (darker tiles require a larger proportion of clay). Although the tiles aren’t translucent, they still possess a glassy luster and are available for just $10 per square foot.

For an entirely different look, consider terrazzo. Coming this June, Wausau Tile will begin producing a new line of terrazzo tile products made up of glass chips instead of stone. According to Rodney Dombrowski, manager of the terra-paving division, choosing glass over stone was a win-win decision. “At $150 per ton, recycled glass costs less than stone chips,” he says. To substitute glass for stone, Wausau invented several new processes, but the end result is a product that’s more water resistant than most stone-based terrazzos. The twelve-by-twelve-inch square floor tiles, which contain 60 percent recycled material, are expected to cost about $8 to $10 per square foot, about the same price as standard terrazzo tile.

Glass on the ground

Maternal warnings about broken glass are universal and have recently become the ­bane of many a landscape designer’s existence. Recycled glass crushed for new usage, known as cullet, has become an increasingly popular—and safe—landscape element, once myths about its safety are debunked.

“It’s taken us three years to get people over their fear” of glass, says Stephen Jerrom, co-owner of Glass Garden in Los Angeles. Jerrom and partner Andy Cao, a native of Vietnam, stumbled into the business after creating a glass garden at their home that received national attention. The 2,000-square-foot garden representing the salt fields and rice terraces of Cao’s childhood was featured in a national magazine and propelled the partners into the business of designing and manufacturing cullet for landscaping. Because of processing methods, which remove sharp edges, recycled glass—in all its forms—is a safe alternative to gravel, sand, and other landscape materials.

In addition to providing a much-needed market for the recycled glass glut in the United States, cullet has become a high-profile design element. From rooftop gardens and pathways to hotel lobbies and private homes, cullet is replacing gray river rock with a splash of color.

Words like “visual feast” tumble out of Jerrom’s mouth when referring to glass gardens that glitter in shades of cobalt blue and turquoise. “It’s so pretty!” he exclaims. A high-profile example of the company’s work can be seen at the Los Angeles–based Chateau Marmont Hotel, where cullet was laid as a ground cover, used underneath newly planted banana trees, embedded in a concrete wall mural, and added to the entrance driveway.

On a smaller scale, Nicholas Thayer of Late Afternoon Garden Design in Seattle used cullet between pavers to add a little light to a Seattle garden. “My customers were thrilled to use recycled material,” he says.

Cullet from Glass Garden ranges from $70 for 50 pounds, which will cover five square feet, to $1,350 for one ton of cullet, which covers 200 square feet. Price can fluctuate by color, availability, and region. Jerrom suggests that clients buy extra cullet to refresh glass gardens, a practice that adds a little zip to the already vibrant colors.

Designers or homeowners must carefully select and prepare the area for placement to ensure easy maintenance. Jerrom suggests using an erosion-control liner and urges clients to select their setting carefully. “The cleaner the planting, the less maintenance you’ll have,” says Jerrom, who steers clear of garden areas where tree leaf and sap droppings are possible.

To reduce maintenance concerns, Lynn Warner, a former program analyst for the King County Solid Waste division in Washington, has showcased cullet in water features at annual garden shows since 1994. A longtime advocate of recycled material use, Warner has seen “an enormous buy-in from the landscape community” with regard to cullet.