“All of this stuff was in your trash last night: mayonnaise jars, wine bottles and Coke bottles, all mixed in with batteries and Barbie doll heads,” John Sabol tells the kids. “And in a couple weeks, it just might come back to your house as a beautiful countertop.”
Several youngsters stick their heads into an immense fabric bag filled with nearly two tons of shattered glass to check it out. “Kind of smells like peanut butter or chocolate,” one exclaims.
“It just might be!” Sabol replies.
John Sabol, who is Vice President of Manufacturing at Vetrazzo, is pitching in with two of his colleagues to give a factory tour to students from Manzanita Middle School, a charter school in the West Contra Costa Unified School District. Sabol is teaching these teens not just about recycling – plenty of which goes on in this re-purposed automobile factory – but also about “upcycling”. He explains,”Upcycling is the process of taking really humble things and reworking them so that they can serve a higher purpose.”
As mentioned in my initial “Hello World” post, I have wanted to tour Vetrazzo since I first saw their gorgeous, multi-faceted countertops in a Berkeley showroom. I was drawn from 20 feet away by the clarity and depth of a cobalt blue and white countertop, and then gaped in wonder as I admired half a dozen other wonderful color palettes composed by Vetrazzo.
As I admired the play of light and dimensionality of the samples, I was powerfully reminded of one of my favorite beach coves, the Glass Beach in Fort Bragg. That particular beach was once the town dump. Over the years, the rush and pull of the waves has ground the glass into smooth pellets that sparkle with the sage of soda bottles, the winter green of wine bottles and the amber of ale flasks. Marrying art and science, Vetrazzo has done much the same thing, creating designer countertops composed of 85% recycled waste glass and 15% cement products. I have been curious about the process – chiefly where they got all the colored glass – and recently got an opportunity to tour the plant, tagging along with a group of 13- and 14-year old students and their teachers. (That was also fun for me, since I have a lot of professional background in education.)
Vetrazzo turns glass from different sources into counter tops with different color palettes, giving them names that hint at their origins: Alehouse Amber is made from beer bottles while Bistro Green comes from beer and wine bottles. Glass House comes from curbside clear recycled glass. Cobalt Skyy gets its color from Skyy® Vodka bottles. Millefiori, named after the famous Venetian glass, is purchased from a company that supplies stained glass window artists. A new red palette comes from light lenses recycled from warning towers and airplane landing strips.
“Everything in our counter tops comes from the United States,” Sabol notes. Up to 1,000 old bottles can go into a counter top. Old window glass and chunky, squared shards of automotive glass are again made new and useful.
Darn near everything else used in the Vetrazzo plant is recycled or gets recycled. The building itself has been reborn. It was originally built as a factory to produce Model A Fords, then converted to building Jeeps and tanks during World War II. Postwar, the plant switched back to making autos again until the early 1950’s. Originally built with a saw-toothed roof punctuated with skylights, the building’s roof now also holds south-facing photovoltaic cells that produce the plant’s electricity. The water used for cooling the diamond-headed files that polish the Vetrazzo slabs is also 100% recycled.
Even the bags used to hold the broken glass received by the factory are recycled. (It could be that the peanut/chocolate scent noticed by my fellow tour guest really did come from food. Just inside the factory door sit enormous white nylon bags bearing stamps on the side that read “peanuts” and “soybeans.” ) The food industry can’t reuse these bags without extensive – and expensive – laundering, but Vetrazzo can, and does — one bag neatly holds up to two tons of glass.
Moving from the bags of glass at the front door into the factory, the students learned that the production process is a lot like making chocolate chip cookies – 700 pound chocolate chip cookies! Curbside glass, of course, forms the “chips” which are indiscriminately crushed together and then sorted for color by a machine. (I don’t begin to understand how a machine can do that, but perhaps that’s why I’m an interior designer rather than an engineer.) The “flour” in the process is cement products. Once the glass and cement have been mixed together for 10 minutes to form a batter, they are poured into a mold that looks somewhat like a 9- by 5-foot cookie sheet, and shaken for about 5 minutes to burp the bubbles out of the mixture. The 800-pound cookie then gets cured overnight, losing 100 pounds of water in the process.
Considerable skill and experience is needed to get the slab to come out right – without bubbles or cracks – because as Sabol told the students, “cement and glass don’t like each other. They are kind of like oil and water. It takes lots of science to make a product that compares to granite in its heat tolerance, its durability and scratch resistance.”
While I have been tagging along with Sabol, Vetrazzo Director of Marketing Karen Righthand has been shepherding a separate group of students. I catch up to them near the end of the tour, just as Righthand is challenging them with some ecological questions. “Is granite a green material?” she asks. “What do you think?”
“Well, it’s rock. Nature made it,” one of the students ventures.
“That’s true,” Righthand says. “But it’s not renewable. Once you cut down a mountaintop to get it, the mountain can’t grow back. It might also surprise you to learn that much of the granite we use in the US comes from third-world countries, where it is mined by people about your age. They dig it out of the ground in Brazil or India, send it to China for processing, then put it on another ship to send it to the United States.”
“Kids our age dig it up?” asks a girl named Daisy. “Isn’t that like child labor or something? I thought that was against the law.”
“It is illegal here in the US,” Righthand replies. “But not in a lot of places. And getting granite here from those places requires lots of fuel, and that produces greenhouse gas.”
Vetrazzo, by contrast, is wholly a domestic product. Invented in 1996 in Berkeley by Don McPhearson, an artist who happened to be a scientist working toward a PhD in glass science, it is now produced in Richmond, California. You can see samples of Vetrazzo in affiliated showrooms, at the Visitor’s Center in Point Reyes National Park, and in the countertops at Whole Foods. You can see it on the Hornblower Cruises hybrid fuel ferry running between San Francisco and Alcatraz, and it will also soon be seen in new luxury boxes at Shea Stadium and at the City of Richmond’s refurbished civic center.
“It’s really beautiful, even though it starts out ugly!” You can take that on good authority from Daisy, who is a watercolor artist as well as a Manzanita Charter School student. “I liked the red and orange ones best,” she said. “Black and white work can look really great with a splash of red. I used that combination in a painting I did of a geisha.” (She’s right – I used the same combination in a kitchen with similar success.)
“Some parts of this tour were really cool,” Daisy said. “I didn’t know that a mountaintop couldn’t grow back, and I was kind of surprised about the child labor part too.”
I would second Daisy’s opinions in these ecological and human rights matters.
I would also like to close by telling my readers that while Vetrazzo is a good substitute for granite both functionally and aesthetically, it’s priced at about what you would pay for better-quality granite. (It costs a bit more than the commodity granite you find in big-box home stores.)
Vetrazzo would be a good choice not only for kitchen or office counter tops, but also for a shower surround or a fireplace hearth. And one more thing: Did I mention that Vetrazzo is dazzlingly dimensioned and drop-dead gorgeous!?
Visit Nicolette’s Comfort and Joy Interior Design website
(excerpt – full poem here)
…For the ocean, nothing
is beneath consideration.
of so many mussels and periwinkles
have been abandoned here, it’s hopeless
to know which to salvage. Instead
I keep a lookout for beach glass—
amber of Budweiser, chrysoprase
of Almadén and Gallo, lapis
by way of (no getting around it,
I’m afraid) Phillips’
Milk of Magnesia, with now and then a rare
translucent turquoise or blurred amethyst
of no known origin.
goes on forever: they came from sand,
they go back to gravel…