Innovation Conversations: David Binns on creating the industry’s first ever 100% recycled glazes

Alusid’s products are nothing short of innovative. We currently produce a range of tiling products that offer a highly sustainable alternative to traditional ceramic tiles. Over the last few years, we have developed a unique, patented process of transforming recycled ‘waste’ glass and porcelain into beautiful architectural surfacing materials – a trail was blazed, and a unique kind of solid surface has been born!

One half of the duo responsible for Alusid’s inception – Emeritus Professor David Binns – now seeks to take Alusid’s environmentally low-impact processes a step further, with the introduction of 100% recycled glazes, developed by our own in-house team in Preston, Lancashire.

Here, in our very first Innovation Conversation, David talks us through how the project came about, while sharing how it will impact the future of Alusid. Over to David…

Firstly, can you please give us a brief introduction to your professional background?

“I have taught Ceramics for almost 40 years in colleges and at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston. And alongside my teaching, I’ve always been an art practitioner, making and exhibiting my ceramic artwork, with research underpinning both my art practice and academic career. I have always been interested in expanding the boundaries of ceramics both technically and aesthetically - experimenting with new ideas, and being playful with materials.

"Over time, I developed a unique process of casting glass, ceramic, and other mineral materials, creating a unique new material with beautiful aesthetic properties. Initially I applied the process to the making of large sculptural forms, which I exhibited in galleries within the UK and abroad.

“During this period an opportunity arose for a funded PhD post to work with me. Alasdair (Alusid co-founder) got the position and we quickly connected and started developing an exciting collaborative relationship. Alasdair’s PhD project involved exploring the creative potential of refractory concrete – a material traditionally used in an industrial context.

"We found it could be combined with the material I was developing, and so we started collaborating on a number of projects. Within the University, we established the ‘Silicates Research Unit’, as a focal point for our ongoing research. At this point, of course, we didn’t realise where it was going!”

How did this lead you to co-found Alusid then?

“One of the particularly interesting projects during this time was our involvement in “The Brick Project” in Holland, looking at developing innovative new architectural products. Through combining my glass/ceramic process with Alasdair’s refractory concrete, we produced a number of prototype products that were exhibited in design events in Rotterdam and Eindhoven.

“Also around this time I was becoming increasingly interested in using recycled/waste materials - as the public consciousness of climate and the environment was steadily growing. Being passionate about the environment and increasingly understanding the need to become more sustainable and environmentally responsible, it felt like the obvious route to take my research.

“So we started testing different sources of waste material. Fortunately, there was a recycling company in Preston where we could get waste glass from bottle banks and recycled TV screens. I was also able to tap into my knowledge of the ceramics industry in Stoke on Trent, in order to get supplies of ceramic waste.

“As Alasdair and I continued collaboration we started to recognise the potential for a larger project. So, we joint-wrote a bid for a research grant through the AHRC (Arts and Humanities Research Council). We titled our research bid the ‘Aesthetic of Waste – exploring the creative and commercial potential of glass and mineral waste’. After successfully receiving the two-year grant, we started systematically testing many types of ‘waste’. From the waste we collected, we developed an exciting range of sample prototype surfaces.

"The project culminated in a showing at 100% Design in London, where we exhibited our prototype samples; generating fantastic feedback from architects and designers. Being both a beautiful material, and made almost entirely from recycled waste, it pushed a lot of buttons. And we started to realise we really had something interesting.

“This led us to apply for a further ‘Follow-on’ grant that allowed us to begin exploiting the commercial potential of the new material and making process we had been developing. We engaged the University in the conversation, and they brought in Frontier IP, a company who specialise in commercialising university research projects. They worked with us to shape a business plan, help set up Alusid as a spin-out company. We found premises in Preston, where we still are today, and quickly moved from a pilot operation to a full-blown production facility. Alasdair is now CEO of Alusid, and, since retiring from teaching, I’m a consultant – working on projects such as the recycled glazes.”

Close-up of the glazing application process
Close-up of the glazing application process
Glaze being applied at our manufacturing facility in Preston
Glaze being applied at our manufacturing facility in Preston

Can you tell us more about the glazes project?

“From the onset, our product base has been made from 100% recycled material. However, the decorative glaze applied to the tile surface has always been made from commercially sourced (virgin) glaze materials. We’re able to do this because Alusid products are closely allied to ceramics. However, I’ve increasingly thought it would be both desirable and exciting to try to make glaze from recycled waste, in order to produce glazed tiles we can truly state are made from 100% recycled material. This notion was also attractive commercially, as it would be a ‘world’s first’, within the industry.

“Tapping into my knowledge about what makes a glaze - essentially a glass with some tweaking - I started a testing regime and found we were able to create a glaze made from a combination of recycled materials – potentially allowing us to make a glazed tiling product entirely from recycled waste.

“Although the glaze is a relatively small component of a tile, it’s an important one, as it is the bit that everyone sees, and it defines the aesthetic appearance of the product. When we launch our recycled glaze, it’ll be a world-first. Though other tile companies are putting small amounts of recycled waste into their tiles, none are remotely hitting 100%. Our dream is to make products that are truly green.”

Where are you with the project currently? Are the glazes ready to be launched?

“Following an Innovate UK Award, we’ve done a lot of development in-house. Working closely with Zoe Williamson, who heads up our factory operations, we’ve created a range of glazes from glossy to matt. It has been great working with Zoe, as she too has a background in ceramics, and therefore a sound understanding of all the processes and materials. Following a period of intense testing, we’ve now got a whole colour palette ready for launch – ranging from organic, earthy tones, to bolder hues.

“We have a small semi-automated line at our factory for applying the base glaze, but to achieve the decorative effect, Zoe is currently hand-spraying a further coat of glaze in order to give an interesting texture - so there remains a slightly bespoke element to the project for now. We are also able to mix custom colours to suit a clients’ specific project requirements. The 100% recycled glazed tiles will initially be small format and will sit between our low and high-volume product ranges. But our intention is to expand the collection over time.

“Currently, from our facility in Preston, we produce bespoke products for low-volume projects. And then in order to offer product at a higher volume for retail – such as through Topps Tiles, we also have a manufacturing partner in Spain. With our new ‘recycled glazed tiles’ we will initially manufacture them in-house with a view to roll them out on a wider scale later down the line.”

Alusid’s 100% recycled glazed tiles are set to launch in early 2024 – stay tuned for more details.