From the ASPIRE DESIGN AND HOME Magazine summer issue, meet environmentalist, tile maker and co-founder of Coldharbour Tiles, Emily Packer.
Alice Garbarini Hurley | Wow, those tiles are bold and beautiful – and they’re made from recycled plastic bottles?
Emily Packer | Yes. Fellow American Jake Calhoun – he’s from D.C. and I’m from California – co-founded Coldharbour Tiles last year. Based in Rwanda, East Africa, we recycle bottles and caps to make luxury tiles in amazing colors and shapes.
We have nine fresh picks, including Fireball Sky (blue flecked with red), Polar Bear (clean white), Eco Kisses (bright red), Mediterranean Sea (blue like the ocean) and Reforestation (vivid green). We buffer and polish the tiles using organic beeswax from Rwanda.
Is the appeal all about reduce/reuse/recycle – or the juicy colors?
We don’t want sustainability to sell our tiles, but rather have it be the cherry on the cake after people fall in love with the design. We offer hexagons, rectangles and small mosaic squares. We’re setting up our website so shoppers can buy directly from us – and hoping to partner with construction and design firms to get our tiles into hotels, restaurants and apartment complexes.
Did you consider making things other than tiles?
The goal was to create something with longevity, something that wouldn’t just end up back in another waste stream in a year or two. We in no way support the production of new plastics and therefore, don’t want to rely on a specific color for production. We’re forced to be really creative with the available plastic. For example, by clumping shades of colors together, such as blues, we can create a really beautiful stone-like tile effect. So from the beginning, tiles were a perfect fit.
What do you add to the plastic?
Up until now, nothing – the tiles are 100 percent high-density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic. We wash and shred the recycled plastic and put the regrinds into molds to make shapes. They’re light but extremely dense, and nearly unbreakable. Soon we will be adding fire retardant to ensure they comply with residential and commercial construction requirements and are as safe as possible.
How much plastic can you handle?
Our ultimate aim is to prevent the 300 million-plus tons produced globally every year from entering oceans and landfills by repurposing it into long-lasting tiles. We are committed to creating a product that’s beautiful, functional and sustainable, starting with common household items like shampoo bottles, lotion containers and bottle caps.
Is plastic a necessary evil?
I don’t think it’s necessary at all, at least for single-use. It’s no longer hard to find alternatives.
How do you harvest the plastic?
Our small factory in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, employs local workers to recycle hundreds of pounds of plastic from the country’s landfills. We plan to collect from other cities across East Africa, too.
It’s a pioneer in reducing single-use plastic. Rwanda was one of the first countries to ban plastic bags – and will actually remove them from your suitcase at the airport upon entry. Now they are looking into banning single-use plastic bottles. The young population here is very motivated to learn about recycling and how to process plastic waste into new items.
What’s going on with U.S. plastic going to Asia?
Europe and the U.S. have exported millions of tons of plastic waste to Asian countries, which often don’t have the capacity to process such large volumes. There’s a high risk of it re-entering the environment in an unsafe way.
What can be done?
We hope to set up sites in the U.S., Europe and Asia so we can process plastic and sell our tiles locally.
Can small changes really be big?
Yes. I think we sometimes focus too much on problems, not solutions. I used to feel like doomsday was coming with climate change. Now I redirect that energy into small, impactful changes, like recycling or composting. Any small steps you take will add up to a huge difference in the big picture.
Are the tiles just for walls?
We’re producing wall and decorative tiles but would like to expand into floor and roof tiles, and begin mixing in other recycled materials, such as glass and metals, to create a more unique product. I look forward to limited-edition collections in which we produce tiles from a specific beach or ocean clean-up partnership. Knowing that all of your bathroom tile, for example, was made from plastic floating in the ocean will hopefully create an “a-ha moment” for consumers and motivate environmental activism.
Was it hard to get started on this venture, because it involves such a sea change in production?
We were literally handpicking pieces of HDPE out of trash points in the city to test our concept. Then local schools and restaurants agreed to donate their plastic on a weekly or monthly basis, and people who heard about us on Facebook even dropped off plastic they had collected. It was a community effort.
Why is plastic on our shortlist of environmental enemies?
It’s quickly piling up, and we need to limit our use while finding new ways to process the waste already out there. The misconception is that plastic “breaks down,” but it actually “breaks up” into smaller and smaller pieces which are now being found in everything – from salt to yeast to mosquitoes – making it harder to clean up. Studies have shown that the average person unknowingly consumes around 70,000 pieces of microplastic each year.
Where are the tiles sold?
We started locally in Kigali, but plan to introduce our line to big box stores in Europe and the United States and open an online shop on our website later this year.
Are they easy to keep clean?
Yes. We recommend them for any interior home design purpose, from kitchen backsplashes to bathrooms to tabletops. We’ve tested very harsh cleaning chemicals on them and haven’t had any problems, but we encourage customers to use organic products when possible. The tiles are also resistant to water, mold and heat – but be careful not to scratch them or put a boiling pot on top without protection.
What do you do in your life to be green?
I always have a reusable grocery bag in my purse – one of the easiest things you can do. The ones that attach to your keychain are great; you can’t lose them. We like Nalgene and Corksicle reusable water bottles, and metal straws that come in individual bamboo cases, to throw in your backpack. I also brought back a few Lush shampoo bars from the U.S. to replace shampoo bottles. People say it’s hard to find a shampoo bar that works, but Lush bars have been great on my hair and smell delicious. Try different products until you find one that works – options are endless now.
Lunch box preference, with your big family? Stainless-steel.
Best things about Rwanda? Living the simple life. You don’t need as much as you think.
Fave Coldharbour tiles? Definitely the Metallic Silver and Heart of Gold hexagons.
Cleanest beaches? I’ve traveled lately to San Diego, the Kenyan Coast and Apulia in Italy. While the beaches all look clean at first, sadly, it’s easy to find whole pieces of plastic nestled in seaweed, or tiny bright red or orange bits when building a sandcastle.
Best eco-friendly cleaning product brands? In Rwanda, we don’t have many new cleaning products. I make my own using distilled vinegar, water and patchouli, lemongrass and geranium essential oils. Products in plastic bottles lead to throwaway waste. Buy a glass spray bottle and experiment.
Good green shop? Supernatural.com; try the starter set, with reusable glass bottles and vials.
Do your kids recycle? My oldest, Archie, is almost five, and we talk about recycling and protecting animals and fish from consuming plastic waste. He’s quick to pick up any plastic trash he sees on the beach.
Should restaurant “doggy bag” containers be banned? Forty percent of plastic made is for packaging – so bring a glass container for leftovers or ask for an eco-friendly option, to push businesses in the right direction.
What about coffee cups? Less than one percent are recycled due to their plastic content, and we use them for an average of maybe 10 minutes. A lot of places offer a discount when you bring a refillable cup.
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